Tokyo-Seoul relations at mercy of 2021 South Korea power struggle

TOKYO — South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s ruling Democratic Party won a landslide victory in Wednesday’s general election, but the Moon administration’s Japan policy is not set to see big changes anytime soon. The key point for Tokyo-Seoul relations is instead more likely to come in 2021, one year before Moon’s term ends. As the race to find Moon’s replacement heats up, relations with Japan risk getting caught up in a power struggle within South Korea’s ruling party.

It is still unclear after Moon’s victory how South Korea’s domestic political situation will affect its relations with Japan, which have deteriorated to their worst level.

The Moon administration, bolstered by its landslide win, is expected to move on its most important issue — improving relations with North Korea. As a part of that, the government will arrange for Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit South Korea, a trip that was initially scheduled for the first half of this year.

Japan will thus remain a low priority. In Japan, attention is focused on when the assets of Japanese companies that were seized as a result of lawsuits over former wartime labor will be liquidated. Some say the process could start as early as this spring, but it is expected to be delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The plaintiffs are not rushing to cash in. The seized assets are not worth a significant amount even if they are sold. It is important to put pressure on the governments of both Japan and South Korea to keep the civic movement going, said a South Korean political scientist.

The Moon administration — which has adopted a “victim-centric philosophy” — will not actively try to improve relations with Japan, nor will it try to make waves. More confrontation with Japan amid the coronavirus pandemic would not be politically advantageous for Moon.

Moreover, Moon has things to gain from better relations with Tokyo. When Moon met Japan’s ambassador to South Korea in February, he said his administration would do its best to see the success of the Tokyo Olympics. This was not just lip service — Moon wants to use the Tokyo Olympics to improve North-South relations, just as he did during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.


President Moon promised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he will work so that the two Koreas could co-host the Olympic Games in 2032.

  © Reuters

Moon promised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he will work so that the two Koreas could co-host the Olympic Games in 2032. The Olympics host cities are decided seven years before the games are held, in principle, and Moon wants to show off North-South reconciliation to the world by building joint teams and conducting joint entry parades in the Tokyo Games.

South Korean presidents are limited to one term, so it is common for an administration to fall into a lame duck period one or two years before its term ends. An improved relationship with North is the biggest issue for Moon, so mending relations with Japan, the next host of the Olympics, is also important for him.

Desipte Moon’s best intentions, political trouble at home may spell trouble for Japan-South Korea relations.

As election results rolled in, a tall man wearing a mask lifted a bouquet of flowers into the air and cameras flashed. Former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, who won the capital’s hardest-fought constituency of Jongno, was one of the key figures in this year’s general election. Lee is seen as one of leading post-Moon candidates within the ruling party, and his victory marked the beginning of the 2022 presidential election.

A Jeolla Province native who was close to former President Kim Dae-jung, Lee cemented his position as a leading “post-Moon” presidential candidate. He is not part of the main faction of the Moon administration.


Former South Korean prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, of the ruling Democratic Party, celebrates his constituency win at his election office in Seoul’s Jongno district on Wednesday. Lee is considered to be a potential runner for the presidency in 2022.

  © Kyodo

Some believe factional infighting may be in store for the progressive political party. It may intensify if the former student movement groups, which supplied many of the officials at the center of the Moon administration, settle on a different candidate as the next presidential election nears.

There are fears that Japan could be used as a political cudgel in that fight. Lee has wide-ranging connections in Japan because of his time as the Tokyo correspondent of the conservative newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, one of South Korea’s largest, and as a senior official in a group of South Korean lawmakers that promote better ties with their Japanese counterparts.

Some fear that opposing factions will attack this history as “pro-Japanese” — a loaded term that refers to collaborators when Japan colonized Korea — in a bid to regain the initiative in choosing a candidate.

In that case, Japanese and South Korean diplomats worry that the issue of payment for wartime labor could once again come to the fore.

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