TOKYO -- The political climate is heating up in South Korea as potential presidential candidates draw their battle lines. The outcome of the March 9 vote for the successor to President Moon Jae-in will go a long way toward defining the political path of the nation for the next five years and will have huge implications for Japan's traditionally prickly relationship with its neighbor.
As presidential hopefuls across the political spectrum announce their candidacies for the single term allowed, one political neophyte has emerged as a potential agent of change for the often-strained ties between Tokyo and Seoul.
Yoon Seok-youl, the nation's former top prosecutor, launched his bid in June. Yoon, who resigned as prosecutor general in March, has apparently set out on a tricky and risky mission of reshaping a political landscape long marked by emotionally charged arguments over Japan.
In South Korea's rough-and-tumble political theater, sharply divided into liberal and conservative camps, an anti-Japanese campaign has been often used by both sides as a way to win broad public support. The term "pro-Japanese" is generally used to stigmatize political enemies because of its association with people accused of betraying the Korean people by cooperating with Japan during the period of Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
In major elections, including presidential polls, candidates often stress their hard-line stances on issues concerning the relationship with Japan and criticize opponents for soft policies toward Tokyo.
This pattern held up for the 2017 presidential election. Ban Ki-moon, a former U.N. secretary-general, emerged as a conservative front-runner in early stages of the presidential race. But Ban's campaign quickly lost steam as his past remarks welcoming a 2015 agreement between the Japanese and South Korean governments over the issue of wartime "comfort women" were used by rivals against him. A scandal involving his parents eventually forced him to give up his presidential campaign.
In a June 29 news conference to announced his candidacy, Yoon, the former top prosecutor who spearheaded the investigation of former President Park Geun-hye, indicated he would attempt to break with this political tradition.
His reference to "The Bamboo Spear" song during the news conference stirred up fierce controversy. While diplomacy needs to be based on "pragmatism and realism," he argued, "We have come to this pass as we have kept singing the ideology-oriented 'Bamboo Spear' song." His comment was a clear swipe at Moon's foreign policy.
The song praises the Tonghak Uprising (1894), a peasant rebellion in the final days of the Yi Dynasty to push back the Japanese invasion that sparked the First Sino-Japanese War. The song is known to inspire a spirit of resistance against Japan and rouse patriotic sentiment among South Koreans. When South Koreans responded to Japan's move in 2019 to tighten control on exports of sensitive Japanese technologies to South Korea by boycotting Japanese products, the bamboo spear, a symbol of the Tonghak peasants, was often mentioned.
Yoon has roundly criticized Moon's foreign policy as burdened by ideology and divorced from reality, blaming it for doing devastating harm to Seoul's ties with Tokyo, which are often described as being in their worst shape since the normalization of the bilateral diplomatic relationship. He contended that South Korea needs to pursue "practical cooperation" with Japan for future generations.
Predictably, Yoon's remarks have spurred a fierce backlash from his liberal contenders and their supporters. Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, who posted the "Bamboo Spear" song on Facebook when Japan tightened control on exports to South Korea, denounced Yoon's comments. Saying he was "stunned by (Yoon's) perceptions of history, which are similar to those of the Japanese government," Cho posted the song again on Facebook.
Former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, known for his deep knowledge about Japan, also criticized Yoon's remarks about the song, which he said were incredible and reflected a "superficial understanding of history."
Yoon remained unfazed by such critiques. With regard to Japan's decision to release radioactive wastewater from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean after being treated with decontamination equipment, Yoon said the Japanese and South Korean governments should proceed with the plan in cooperation with other nations while ensuring transparency.
He also said that such a discharge of treated water from a nuclear power plant has never been regarded as a major source of concern and that it should not be seen as a political matter. Yoon has since been locked in acrimonious debate with Lee Jae-myung, the governor of Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul. Lee, the front-runner among liberal presidential candidates, is known for his harsh criticism of Japan.
Yoon's proposal to start "two plus two" meetings of the Japanese and South Korean defense and foreign ministers is another sign that he is seeking a radical departure from the Moon administration's policy toward Tokyo. It is a bold proposal in South Korea, where there is strong antagonism toward Japan's Self-Defense Forces, which conjure up memories of the Japanese Imperial Army.
Moon has been hamstrung by his campaign pledge to renegotiate the bilateral agreement on the issue of comfort women. Moon was eventually forced to acknowledge it to be a formal agreement between the two governments.
Yoon's presidential bid could have a positive impact on the country's politics if he is serious about ending the vicious cycle of antagonism between the pro- and anti-Japanese camps.
He may think that he can attract realistic young voters who feel a sense of stagnation by framing himself as a tough-minded pragmatist focused on the question of what is best for the nation and stressing his differences from ideology-driven liberal candidates.
Yoon, however, is not ready to promote a clearly pro-Japanese political agenda. As a venue to roll out his presidential campaign, he chose a memorial museum dedicated to a South Korean independence hero who killed and injured many Japanese military officers by throwing a bomb at them in 1932 in Shanghai. The choice of venue was a calculated move to avoid being labeled pro-Japanese.
The main opposition People Power Party is seeking to reinvent itself by electing a 36-year-old political outsider, Lee Jun-seok, as its new leader. On July 8, Lee met with the Japanese ambassador to South Korea, Koichi Aiboshi. During the meeting, Lee expressed his wish to see the two countries help each other in close cooperation. Lee asked for Aiboshi's support for his efforts to promote exchanges between the two nations' politicians and young people.
Political pundits predict that young voters in their 20s and 30s, collectively called the "2030 generation," will hold the key to the presidential election.
While many South Koreans have hard feelings toward Japan, a majority still call for improvement in bilateral ties. Yoon is challenging the conventional wisdom that a South Korean politician can always boost his or her standing with the voting public by taking up an anti-Japanese posture.
Moon was looking at the possibility of visiting Japan during the Tokyo Olympics, but has decided not to travel. His intention, however, could be a sign of his concerns about the political implications of the conservative opposition party's move to redefine its image and agenda.
Yoon's audacious attempt for political reform has the potential to reshape the country's traditional policy toward Japan. It remains to be seen, however, how far Yoon is ready to go beyond simply seeking to unseat the liberal government from power.