Comment: For South Korea, reconciliation with Japan is a reasonable but unpopular move.
Can Yun sell reconciliation to the Korean public?
If the external logic is clear, Mr. Yoon’s domestic logic is much stronger. The agreement settled South Korea’s claim for compensation for Korean labor impressed by the Japanese Empire. Japan has consistently rejected these allegations, and Yun has basically accepted them and tried to compensate his workers’ descendants in other ways.
The agreement was immediately attacked as a mass betrayal by the South Korean opposition. Mr. Yun is conservative and hawkish towards North Korea and China. The South Korean right has long sought to free South Korea’s strategic dialogue from Japan’s historical accusations.
But the South Korean left is deeply committed to Japan’s regular penitential statements. It is also dovish toward North Korea. North and South Korea have long sought a breakthrough so that they can focus their anger on Japan.
This has eluded Korea’s progressive presidents, but South Korean nationalism is still centered in the imperialist era. Only 40% of South Koreans, the conservative base of Yoon’s coalition, support President Yun’s imperial labor agreement. This suggests that whenever progressives regain the presidency, they will undo the current rapprochement.
Indeed, this has happened before, in 2015, when South Korea’s conservative President Park Geun-hye signed a compensation agreement for South Korean women forced to work in comfort stations for the Japanese military. This is a very emotional issue in Korea, and progressives have vehemently attacked the deal. When progressive President Moon Jae-in took office in 2017, he reneged on Park’s promise.
This is the threat Yun faces. He has to sell his deal not only to his constituents, but also to centrists and leftists who want more movement from Japan on historical issues. President Yoon should put great effort into persuading skeptics through speeches, broadcast appearances, and a re-evaluation of national strategy. Otherwise, this worker contract will be broken like the 2015 contract.