The Olympic Games still represent an opportunity for international politics for many countries; while in Europe, the tendency is to withdraw candidacies to become their headquarters, in the Indo-Pacific, they represent an important vector of foreign policy and a platform through which to reaffirm territorial claims. An example is a centuries-old dispute between South Korea and Japan over the Liancourt Rocks. This article is part of a series dedicated to the last year of South Korean President Moon Jae -in’s administration. In the text, reference will be made to the relations between the countries mentioned above.
South Korea and President Moon Jae-in in Japanese public opinion
During the Moon administration, relations between Tokyo and Seoul reached unprecedented tension levels since the normalization of bilateral relations in 1965. The tense political and diplomatic ties are reflected in the perception of South Korea in Japanese public opinion. According to data from various polls conducted by the Genron NPO and the East Asia Institute, since the South Korean Head of State took office, most Japanese citizens continue to have a rather negative opinion of Seoul.
Although there has been a slight improvement, compared to the negative peak in 2014 (54.4%), the percentage of those who continue to have an unfavourable impression of South Korea remains relatively high (between 46.3% and 49.9%). However, only a tiny minority (8%) of Japanese public opinion perceives South Korea as friendly. The main reasons behind these adverse perceptions are Seoul’s continuing criticism of Japan on the subject of historical controversies. This issue recurs, without respite, not only in the meetings between the representatives of the two countries but also at the popular level, where dissent of Korean citizens has repeatedly resulted in a series of anti-Japanese demonstrations and boycotts of Japanese products, initiatives not appreciated by Japanese public opinion.
Furthermore, the adverse perception of South Korea and the awareness of political and diplomatic tensions are not accompanied by expectations of future improvement. The majority of Japanese public opinion remains somewhat pessimistic and does not seem to expect any change in the complex dynamics that afflict Seoul and Tokyo.
President Moon is also at the centre of such adverse perceptions. At first, the benefit of the doubt has prevailed, but his image has deteriorated during his government. Relatively neutral and ambivalent opinions have been progressively supplanted by negative ones(50.8% in 2019 and 49.7% in 2020). The number of those who have a good impression of the Korean President has been reduced to 1.5%. In particular, the majority (60%) of public opinion disapproves of his policies towards Japan.
Moon administration’s negative opinion reflects the lack of trust of Japanese citizens towards the current Korean government (as much as 71%, according to the data). Fundamental is the belief that the President has no qualms about breaking international and bilateral agreements. This belief was strengthened after he decided to revoke the deal reached by Park and Abe in 2015 on the issue of comfort women. Despite the prevalence of negative opinions, Japanese citizens continue to attach importance to relations between Tokyo and Seoul and hope for a prompt reconciliation between the two countries.
The Abe-Suga relay in bilateral relations
Although since the end of 2020, President Moon Jae-in has shown signs of wanting to improve relations with Tokyo, the Japanese government is ignoring a possible Korean reopening. The Suga administration, in line with the previous one, remains quite sceptical of him and has reacted with caution, limiting himself to attempting only the bare minimum to minimize tensions with Seoul, often under pressure from Washington. The lack of enthusiasm shown by Tokyo in the dialogue is evident if we thought of the lack of bilateral meeting during the G7 in June 2021, a meeting requested by Seoul and promptly rejected by Tokyo. The precarious state of current relations between the two countries is reflected in the most recent Japanese White Paper, which seems to blame the tensions in Seoul unilaterally.
Suga’s scepticism in reconnecting relations with his South Korean counterpart could be attributable to two interconnected factors. First of all, in continuity with the Abe administration, Tokyo does not trust Moon’s promises and perceives negotiations and a possible compromise with the current Korean government as a risk to be preferably avoided. Second, the President of South Korea is seen as a temporary figure whose mandate is about to expire. Given these assumptions and Suga’s growing domestic unpopularity, it is not surprising that the Japanese government prefers to avoid engaging in discussions and negotiations with the outgoing Korean administration.
For Tokyo, this scenario carries the risk that a possible agreement will be abandoned again after the South Korean parliamentary elections of 2022, a possibility which, if it occurs, would further damage the precarious political status of the Japanese prime minister and the Liberal Democratic party. Therefore, it is worthwhile to wait and see who Tokyo will work with within the years to come in this context.
The future of bilateral relations
The polls on the possible successor of President Moon Jae-in do not give univocal prospects. For a few weeks, the most likely candidate for the Blue House was former prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl: A figure close to the conservatives, came to the fore during the trial of former president Park Geun-hye, leading the public prosecution against Lee Jae-yong, then vice-president of Samsung. On 29 June 2021, he announced his candidacy for the Blue House, placing emphasis on re-establishing positive relations with Japan, offering a definitive solution to the various legal disputes relating to comfort women and forced labour, in exchange for the removal of Japanese obstacles on the microchips’ input imports. In addition, in the press conference in which he announced his run for the presidency, the former prosecutor harshly criticized the legislative initiatives of the current administration.
Furthermore, the recent municipal victories of the Conservatives do not lean in favour of an eventual national leadership of the Democrats. The recent proposal by the governor of the province of Gyonggi, Lee Jae-myung, a Democrat, towards the issuance of a universal minimum income, met with the opposition of the newly elected conservative mayor of Seoul Oh Se – hoon, more inclined to an income progressive, than to a universal one tout court. This dispute indicates how the electoral campaign has entered an extremely lively phase, but above all, with implications that are still uncertain.
A further element of uncertainty is played by the former Prime Minister and former Secretary of the Democratic Party Lee Nak-yon. During his declaration, he strongly emphasized the participation of South Korea in the “Quad”, or at least an improvement in bilateral relations with the countries that are part of the Dialog. Indeed, a position also shared by a part of the Korean Democrats represents a factor to consider when trying to predict the evolution of South Korean foreign relations.
On the other hand, the interests at stake, both in domestic and foreign policy matters, are different. South Korea is preparing to enter the hottest moment of competition in the semiconductor sector, in a context in which the United States and the European Union rely mainly on Taiwan as a supplier of microchips. As regards the energy transition, the Country of the Morning Calm hosts multinationals such as SK, Hyundai and LG, to name but a few, which are investing heavily in the creation of innovative electric batteries and the first two chaebols mentioned have formed what they call ” the alliance hydrogen “. South Korea aims to become the world’s leading nation in the hydrogen sector and is currently the first to enact a law regarding this element.
However, the Sino-US trade war may not play in the Republic of Korea’s favour; building a supply chain outside the Dragon’s sphere of influence could, and indeed is already doing so, harm South Korean multinationals. In such a context, and given the historical proximity of the conservatives to the chaebol, it is not as apparent as it would seem that the posture of a possible conservative government is strongly anti-Chinese and more conciliatory with Tokyo and Washington. Therefore, the positioning of Korea within the Indo-Pacific still reserves many uncertainties and ambiguities.In essence, the main directives of misalignment between the two Indo-Pacific countries would not seem to converge in the short term. The centuries-old diatribe relating to the Liancourt Rocks, at least, is not a question that can be resolved even in the event of a reversal of the South Korean leadership. Conversely, Seoul’s diplomatic posture towards its neighbours could change following the entry of conservatives into the Blue House. The historical proximity of the latter to Japan, in fact, also make them eligible supporters of FOIP, the Japanese strategy for a ” Free and Open Indo-Pacific “. Will we see the Republic of Korea get closer and closer to the Quad?