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South Koreans sceptical as president offers olive branch to Japan


South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol and his wife Kim Keon-hee look on at Tokyo International Airport (Haneda Airport) in Tokyo, Japan March 16, 2023. REUTERS/Issei Kato

As South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol landed in Tokyo on Thursday his plan to patch up relations with Japan faces lingering scepticism at home.

South Korean opposition likely poses little domestic political problem for the conservative Yoon, but could affect how far he is able to go in winning cooperation from Japan, experts said.

Yoon’s visit to Tokyo – the first such summit since 2011 – comes after he proposed that South Korean companies compensate plaintiffs who won court cases accusing Japanese firms of using forced labour during Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of Korea.

That plan was welcomed in Tokyo and praised by the White House as “ground breaking,” but several key victims have already rejected the proposal, and polls show it is generally unpopular in South Korea.

About 59% of the respondents oppose the plan because of the lack of an apology and compensation from Japan; 64% do not consider Yoon’s proposed compensation plan adequate, a Gallup Korea survey showed. Sixty-four percent of the respondents said South Korea did not need to rush to improve ties with Japan if there were no change in Tokyo’s attitude, according to the poll.

“I believe that the Korean people will understand how hard the government has worked to heal the wound of the forced labour victims and to build a future-oriented Korea-Japan relations,” Yoon said in a written interview with international media on Wednesday, when asked about domestic opposition.

The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) on Monday unilaterally passed a resolution through the parliamentary foreign affairs committee urging Yoon to withdraw the plan. Lawmakers from Yoon’s People Power Party (PPP) boycotted the committee meeting.

The government’s human-rights body said the proposal is not appropriate for the victims by international standards.

“Since the issue of compensation for victims of forced labour is an important issue for restoring human dignity, all countermeasures must consider the emotional and psychological damage suffered by the victims,” Song Doo-hwan, chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, said in a statement last week.

That lack of public support at home affects his ability to win concessions from the Japanese, who are wary of making deals that – as with the 2015 agreement over South Korean women and girls forced to work in Japanese wartime brothels – could be swept away by a change of administrations in Seoul, analysts said.

“The last remaining hurdle is resistance from our people,” said Kim Joon-hyung, a former chancellor of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy.

Yoon is the latest of many South Korean conservatives who embrace the argument that Seoul must heal divides with Japan to confront security challenges. His administration also seems to be calculating that North Korea’s increased missile launches will give them the domestic political cover to push forward with reconciliation, Kim said.

Just hours before Yoon departed for Japan, North Korea test-fired an apparent intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into the sea.

For now, the Japanese public welcome the deal, polls showed. A Kyodo poll said on Monday that 57% of Japanese supported South Korea’s proposal to resolve the wartime labour dispute, while 33% did not. Kishida’s ratings rose to 38%, 4.5 percentage points up from mid-February, according to the poll.

“There’s a lot of debate domestically, but Yoon has taken a step forward. Reports from Seoul say Yoon won’t use Japan relations for political purposes,” a Japanese government source with the knowledge of the matter said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Boycotts of Japanese products and vacations have largely faded in South Korea, and a growing number of South Koreans are travelling to Japan as COVID restrictions ease.

Three Japanese animated films are among the top five at box office in South Korea.

Studies have shown that although South Koreans enjoy Japanese movies and food, however, South Korea’s growing stature in the world has made younger citizens less willing than older generations to sweep historical disputes under the rug in the name of closer ties.

“Separate from me liking Japanese culture, we don’t need to be submissive to Japan in diplomacy,” said Kim Joo-hee, 30, an office worker in Seoul who travels to Japan for her year-end holidays. “So I don’t like everything coming out of news these days.”

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