【Editorial】South Korean Ruling Party’s Crushing Defeat:Continue to Strengthen Relations with Japan

Apr 12, 2024

In the South Korean general election, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) lost seats and opposition parties, represented by the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), gained seats, further straining the administration and legislature. However, the total number of seats held by opposition parties fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the presidential impeachment bill. In any case, President Yoon Seok-yeol will inevitably become a lame duck with three years left in his term, and he will have to manage his administration with even greater difficulty.

Unable to Win over Independents

In South Korea, whether it is a presidential or a general election, they say “30, 40, 30.” While conservatives and leftists have strong support bases of approximately thirty percent each, the difference between winning and losing has been on the remaining forty percent of voters who are centrist or independent.

Last December, the ruling party was in turmoil with its leader resigning and former Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, Yoon’s prosecutor colleague, leading the campaign as Chairman of the Emergency Response Committee, but the party could not capture the “40” because of “limitations of the one-top system” (commented by Chosun TV) and was undeniably unprepared.

In contrast, the DPK ramped up its attacks despite the ongoing trial of Lee Jae-myung, mainly on the government’s economic measures, and called for prosecutorial reform. Cho Kuk, in particular, who resigned from Moon Jae-in’s administration as justice minister due to his daughter’s university admission fraud, established the Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP) and secured 12 seats in proportional electoral districts. The RKP is expected to cooperate with the DPK in the future, and “special legislative demands” by opposition parties are expected within the National Assembly.

The Yoon administration is struggling in domestic affairs, but the prevailing view is that continuity will remain in diplomacy. Yoon has won a certain reputation for overcoming strong domestic criticism and improving relations with Japan and with the United States, so opposition parties will not press for an extreme anti-Japanese policy as the Moon administration had done.

At present, an “unprecedented Japanese boom” is taking place in South Korea, where Japanese beer is sold, Japanese anime movies are popular, and many Japanese-style izakaya bars can be found in student districts. Last year, the number of South Korean visitors to Japan approached 7 million, the highest of any country or region. As each party looks ahead to the presidential election in three years, they will not risk adopting policies that may cause headwinds.

Late last year, however, the South Korean Supreme Court confirmed a ruling ordering Hitachi Zosen and other companies to pay damages over the issue of former civilian workers from the Korean Peninsula. In addition, a South Korean court decided to seize the deposit Hitachi Zosen paid and hand it over to the plaintiffs. As similar trials are expected to continue in the future, the Japanese government should not overlook this as an internal South Korean matter. If the South Korean side simply demands “a response from Japan” and the Japanese side insists on “implementing the Japan-South Korea agreement,” there is no guarantee that an impasse can be avoided. We should create a situation where progress is made one step at a time.

Both Leaders Should Talk on the Abduction Issue

It goes without saying that Japan, the United States and South Korea must strengthen their cooperation if they are to face the number of challenges currently faced in East Asia, including China’s military expansion, the Taiwan Strait crisis and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. At the Japan-U.S. summit meeting, Prime Minister Kishida stressed that Japan’s policy of talking with North Korea to resolve the issue of Japanese abductees remains unchanged. Japan should also not forget to cooperate closely with South Korea, which is dealing with the same difficulty. Discussing this issue with Yoon will be the first step.

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