Seoul-Tokyo rapport under Moon unlikely

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/16 21:43:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

South Korea's new President Moon Jae-in was sworn in on May 10 after a landslide election victory. Moon's taking office signifies the beginning of a new ruling government after nine years of conservative administration and an end to the half-year power vacuum caused by the suspension and impeachment of president Park Geun-hye from office. 

Considering the chilly Japan-South Korea relations in Park Geun-hye's period, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expects Tokyo-Seoul ties could be improved after Moon assumes power. Although in the past two years Japanese and South Korean governments have signed a  General Security of Military Information Agreement, which signifies a quasi-military alliance, heads of state of the two countries have not realized formal reciprocal visits.

On the contrary, negative sentiment against each other grows increasingly stronger in both countries.

During a telephone conversation on May 11 with Moon, Abe said he wants to "develop a future-oriented Japan-South Korea relationship." As the chance for a Japan-South Korea summit in the short term is slim, Abe is expected to seek meetings with Moon through international conventions, such as the G20 summit to be held in July, or promote the resumption of the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit.

What deserves attention is the absence of a transition process between the old and new governments in South Korea. Moon was sworn in immediately after claiming victory in the presidential election. This means that many of Moon's campaign promises will soon be implemented.

In view of this, the comfort women issue and territorial disputes will be the prominent destabilizing factors in Japan-South Korea relations.

In July 2016, Moon landed on Dokdo Island, known as Takeshima in Japan, and reiterated South Korea's claim of sovereignty over it. During his election campaign, Moon also called for repealing the 2015 comfort women agreement signed by Japan and South Korea and demanded an apology from Japan.

In January of this year, Moon visited the statue commemorating the comfort women outside the Japanese Consulate General in Busan. A poll released by Gallup Korea in February showed 78 percent of people polled were against the statue's removal, and 70 percent of those interviewed supported a new round of negotiations with Japan on the comfort women issue.

Considering Moon's attitudes and actions regarding the historical and territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea, as well as a surge of public opinion pressure, it can be expected that Moon's Japan policy will involve a tougher stance, the consequences of which will further constrain the development of Japan-South Korea relations.

Although the historical and territorial disputes might prompt Moon to act tough, collaborative attitudes can be expected in the fields of economic and trade cooperation. Park promised to create a second Miracle on the Han River when she became president in 2013. However, the promise wilted under a sharp decline in national income and a rising unemployment rate. From this perspective, the imminent pressure facing Moon is dealing with domestic economic woes.

The THAAD issue has greatly exacerbated the China-South Korea relationship and consequently has exerted a negative influence on the Korean economy. It will take time to convince the US to remove THAAD, so the Moon administration is likely to strengthen economic and trade cooperation between Japan and South Korea, such as demanding Japan resume negotiations on a currency swap arrangement between the two countries.

In his inauguration speech, Moon stated that he hopes to visit Tokyo. Moon has also nominated Lee Nak-yeon as South Korea's next prime minister. Lee previously worked in Japan and served as a senior officer of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union. He not only has a deep understanding of Japan, but also has related connections.

Therefore, it can be seen that Moon has erected a personnel firewall in preparation of likely tensions between Japan and South Korea while extending an olive branch to the Abe administration at the same time.

Nonetheless, although Japan-South Korea relations will not deteriorate to an all-time low, a honeymoon period such as in the 1960s and 1970s is not likely to occur.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Sociology at Toyo University. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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