South Korean presidential hopeful wants to change attitudes about Japan

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TOKYO – The political climate is heating up in South Korea as potential presidential candidates draw their battle lines. The outcome of the March 9 vote for President Moon Jae-in’s successor will go a long way in shaping the nation’s political course for the next five years and have huge implications for Japan’s traditionally delicate relations with its neighbor.

As presidential candidates from all political backgrounds announce their candidacies for the authorized single term, a political neophyte has become a potential agent of change for the often strained ties between Tokyo and Seoul.

Yoon Seok-youl, the country’s former attorney general, launched his candidacy in June. Yoon, who resigned his post as attorney general in March, has apparently embarked on a delicate and risky mission of reshaping a political landscape long marked by emotionally charged arguments about Japan.

In South Korea’s turbulent political theater, heavily divided into liberal and conservative camps, an anti-Japanese campaign has often been used by both sides as a way to gain broad public support. The term “pro-Japanese” is generally used to stigmatize political enemies because of its association with people accused of betraying the Korean people by cooperating with Japan during the period of Japanese colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

In major elections, including presidential elections, candidates often stress their tough positions on issues concerning relations with Japan and criticize opponents for their gentle policies towards Tokyo.

Moon Jae-in speaks at a campaign rally in Daegu, South Korea, May 8, 2017 © Reuters

This pattern continued for the 2017 presidential election. Ban Ki-moon, a former UN secretary general, emerged as a conservative favorite at the start of the presidential race. But Ban’s campaign quickly ran out of steam as his past remarks hailing a 2015 deal between the Japanese and South Korean governments on the wartime “comfort women” issue were used by rivals against him. A scandal involving his parents ultimately forced him to give up his presidential campaign.

At a press conference on June 29 to announce his candidacy, Yoon, the former attorney general who led the investigation into former President Park Geun-hye, said he would try to break with this political tradition. .

His reference to the song “The Bamboo Spear” during the press conference sparked much controversy. While diplomacy should be based on “pragmatism and realism”, he argued, “we got there because we kept singing the ideology oriented song ‘Bamboo Spear’.” His comment was a clear blow to Moon’s foreign policy.

The song praises the Tonghak Uprising (1894), a peasant rebellion in the last days of the Yi Dynasty to repel the Japanese invasion that sparked the First Sino-Japanese War. The song is known to inspire a spirit of resistance against Japan and arouse a patriotic sentiment among South Koreans. When South Koreans responded to Japan’s decision in 2019 to tighten control over exports of sensitive Japanese technology to South Korea by boycotting Japanese goods, the bamboo spear, a symbol of Tonghak peasants, was often mentioned. .

Yoon sharply criticized Moon’s foreign policy as being weighed down by ideology and separated from reality, blaming it for causing devastating damage to Seoul’s relations with Tokyo, which are often described as being in their worst condition since normalization. bilateral diplomatic relations. He argued that South Korea must continue “practical cooperation” with Japan for future generations.

As might be expected, Yoon’s remarks sparked a strong reaction from his liberal contenders and their supporters. Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, who posted the song “Bamboo Spear” on Facebook when Japan tightened export controls to South Korea, denounced Yoon’s comments. Claiming to be “stunned by (Yoon’s) perceptions of the story, which are similar to those of the Japanese government,” Cho posted the song to Facebook again.

Former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, known for his extensive knowledge of Japan, also criticized Yoon’s remarks about the song, which he said were incredible and reflected a “superficial understanding of history.”

Yoon was unfazed by such criticism. Regarding Japan’s decision to dump radioactive wastewater from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean after being treated with decontamination equipment, Yoon said the Japanese and South Korean governments should pursue the plan in cooperation with other countries while ensuring transparency.

He also said that such a discharge of treated water from a nuclear power plant has never been viewed as a major concern and should not be viewed as a political issue. Yoon has since been locked into an acrimonious debate with Lee Jae-myung, the governor of Gyeonggi province, which surrounds Seoul. Lee, the favorite among the liberal presidential candidates, is known for his harsh criticism of Japan.

Lee Jae-myung, governor of Gyeonggi province, announced his candidacy for the presidential election in a video message broadcast on July 1. © Kyodo

Yoon’s proposal to start “two plus two” meetings of Japanese and South Korean defense and foreign ministers is another sign that he is seeking a radical departure from the Moon administration’s policy towards Tokyo. . This is a bold proposition in South Korea, where there is strong antagonism towards the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, which evoke memories of the Imperial Japanese Army.

Moon was crippled by his campaign promise to renegotiate the bilateral agreement on the issue of comfort women. Moon was eventually forced to admit that this was a formal agreement between the two governments.

Yoon’s presidential candidacy could have a positive impact on the country’s politics if he is serious about ending the vicious cycle of antagonism between the pro and anti-Japanese camps.

He may think he can attract realistic young voters who feel a sense of stagnation by portraying himself as a hard-minded pragmatist focused on what is best for the nation and pointing out his differences with the candidates. ideological liberals.

Yoon, however, is not ready to promote a clearly pro-Japanese political agenda. To carry out his presidential campaign, he chose a memorial museum dedicated to a South Korean independence hero who killed and wounded numerous Japanese military officers by throwing a bomb at them in 1932 in Shanghai. The choice of venue was a calculated move to avoid being labeled pro-Japanese.

The main opposition party, the People Power Party, is seeking to reinvent itself by electing a 36-year-old political outsider, Lee Jun-seok, as its head. On July 8, Lee met with Japanese Ambassador to South Korea, Koichi Aiboshi. During the meeting, Lee expressed his wish to see the two countries help each other in close cooperation. Lee asked for Aiboshi’s support for his efforts to promote exchanges between politicians and young people from both nations.

Political experts predict that young voters in their 20s and 30s, collectively referred to as the “2030 generation,” will hold the key to the presidential election.

Members of the Korea Youth Climate Action Group demonstrate in March 2020. The group filed a complaint with the Korean Constitutional Court, accusing the government’s environmental policy of violating the constitution. © Youth 4 Climate Action in the Republic of Korea / Kyodo

While many South Koreans hold grudges against Japan, a majority still calls for improved bilateral relations. Yoon challenges the misconception that a South Korean politician can always improve his standing with voters by adopting an anti-Japanese stance.

Moon was considering the possibility of visiting Japan during the Tokyo Olympics, but decided not to travel. His intention, however, could be a sign of his concerns about the political implications of the Tory opposition party’s decision to redefine its image and platform.

Yoon’s bold attempt at political reform has the potential to reshape the country’s traditional policy toward Japan. It remains to be seen, however, how far Yoon is willing to go beyond simply attempting to topple the Liberal government from power.


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