Why Yoon is sticking to his guns on unpopular plan for forced labor victims

Posted on : 2023-03-06 18:02 KST Modified on : 2023-03-06 18:02 KST
The South Korean president sees the current impasse in relations with Japan as the biggest obstacle to improving trilateral relations
President Yoon Suk-yeol and first lady Kim Keon-hee take part in an event commemorating the March 1 Independence Movement at the Yu Gwan-sun Memorial Hall in downtown Seoul on March 1. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol and first lady Kim Keon-hee take part in an event commemorating the March 1 Independence Movement at the Yu Gwan-sun Memorial Hall in downtown Seoul on March 1. (courtesy of the presidential office)

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s haste to conclude negotiations for compensation funds for victims of forced labor mobilization during the Japanese occupation of Korea, despite criticism and domestic outcry, is part of the current administration’s foreign policy focus on trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the US.

Yoon sees historical issues as the biggest obstacle to improving trilateral relations and wants to expand the grounds of trilateral cooperation to include national security and the economy, according to the administration.

“This issue may be a risk factor for the government, but we need to look at the big picture as to why we are coming to this conclusion,” a presidential office official told Hankyoreh on Saturday, adding, “President Yoon believes that we need to make a speedy decision.”

Yoon plans to restore “shuttle diplomacy” between South Korea and Japan this month, visit the US in April, and attend the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, as an observer in May to maximize trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea, and the US.

On Sunday, Kim Sung-han, director of the National Security Office, answered questions from reporters at Incheon International Airport before departing for Washington. One reporter asked him whether he would be discussing the forced mobilization issue with the US. In response, Kim answered, “I don’t see this as an issue to be discussed between South Korea and the US.”

Instead, Kim said he plans to talk about “security cooperation through improved South Korea-Japan relations and what role the US can play for the overall development of South Korea-US-Japan relations as well as measures that can be taken at the level of the South Korea-US alliance.”

For the US, trilateral cooperation involving South Korea and Japan is seen as key to confronting the China-Russia-North Korea bloc. As such, having Seoul and Tokyo improve their relations is essential for Washington.

President Yoon Suk-yeol has been criticizing the former administration’s Japan policy for some time now, even before he took office. While he was campaigning for the presidential election in June 2021, for instance, Yoon said that Korea-Japan relations had reached the point they had because of Korea’s doggedness, referencing a song about the bamboo spears wielded by Koreans during a peasant rebellion in the late 19th century.

Then, in November of that year, he continued criticizing the Moon administration’s approach to Japan, saying, “South Korea-Japan relations have reached their lowest point because foreign policy has made its way into domestic politics.”

Similarly, in an interview with the New York Times last September, Yoon said he would like to strike a “grand bargain” with Japan over sensitive historical issues that have plagued the bilateral relationship until now.

Given such remarks, Yoon appears to be pursuing a “package deal” of resolving the issue of forced labor as well as other bilateral issues with Japan that had been put off by the previous government.

Yoon has been consistent with his rhetoric on Japan so far, even referring to Japan in his March 1 speech as a “cooperative partner” who shares “the same universal values with us” and who cooperates on security, economic, and global challenges with South Korea. This kind of perspective seems to be the reason why Yoon did not mention any historical or other sensitive issues related to Japan.

Victims of Japan’s forced labor mobilization in South Korea filed a lawsuit against Nippon Steel in a Japanese court back in 1997. With the government trying to hastily resolve, without public consensus, the issue of compensation for these victims — an issue that has been ongoing for over 25 years now — a strong backlash from the public seems inevitable.

Over the years, the anti-Japanese sentiment that arose in the process of conducting diplomacy with Japan has been a political burden at various times.

“If we would have been able to get everything we wanted, it wouldn’t have come to this,” a high-ranking official at the presidential office said, adding that it’s a situation where “both sides have to make concessions little by little” and help the public “understand” the process.

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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