Playing with fire
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Last July, President Moon Jae-in’s weekly approval ratings skyrocketed by 4 percentage points. Since the inter-Korean summit in September 2018, there had been no such spike. The ruling Democratic Party’s approval rating also went up by 3.6 percentage points, while the main opposition Liberty Korea Party lost 3.2 percentage points. The gap between the two parties widened from 8.3 percentage points to 15.1 percentage points in one week.
The reason was anti-Japan sentiment. After Japan’s economic retaliations for Supreme Court’s rulings that Japanese companies must compensate forced labor victims from World War II, public sentiment boiled over. Moon and the ruling party reacted harshly toward Japan, while the opposition attacked the administration for having failed to deal with Japan appropriately. The public condemned the opposition party.
It was not the first time presidential approval ratings fluctuated due to anti-Japan sentiment. When President Lee Myung-bak went to the Dokdo islets in 2012, his approval ratings soared by 6 percentage points. Criticisms arose that he was exploiting anti-Japan sentiment after his popularity dropped due to the arrest of his brother, Rep. Lee Sang-deuk, on corruption charges. It has become an established convention in Korea that stronger anti-Japan sentiment leads to higher approval ratings for an administration.
The Moon administration and ruling party must have felt frustrated ahead of the April 15 parliamentary elections, as a series of events they have eagerly anticipated were all canceled. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s reciprocal visit and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s planned visit to Seoul became impossible due to the frozen diplomatic conditions on the Korean Peninsula and the latest virus outbreak. So the administration is tempted to use the anti-Japan sentiment card.
Recently, a report was published saying the Blue House was again considering the idea of scrapping the Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia). It seems feasible, but the Blue House denied the report. (Perhaps it did not want to upset the United States.) However, we should not believe that Korea-Japan relations are irrelevant to the general election, as the detonator that can reignite anti-Japan sentiment still remains. The victims of forced labor could be allowed to liquidate assets of Japanese companies as compensation, and Tokyo has publicly warned that it will immediately retaliate if that happens. In this case, the bilateral relationship will suffer irrecoverable damages.
Experts who understand the explosiveness of the case urge the government to act swiftly. Some proposed a legal reconciliation measure to compensate the victims, which respects decisions of the judiciaries in both countries. National Assembly speaker Moon Hee-sang proposed a bill that requires companies and people of the two countries to voluntarily make contributions to pay restitution to the victims.
Although there are various possible solutions, the Moon administration clearly wants to leave the situation unattended, and is merely feigning negotiations with Tokyo without sincere efforts. “The government cannot influence the timing of the liquidation because it pertains to the realm of judicial process,” said Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha earlier this month. If the liquidation really takes place before the general election, Japan will retaliate and anti-Japan sentiment will explode in Korea, helping the ruling party.
It is important for the court to choose an appropriate time for the liquidation. Depending on the timing, it can invite criticism that it is siding with the government. The government also can face criticism that it is implementing a diversionary foreign policy for the sake of winning a general election if it does not make efforts to improve relations with Tokyo.
The administration must remember that this passive strategy has a critical flaw. If the outcome of the labor dispute is not good, it will suffer a critical internal wound. A good example is the U.S. war against Iraq, which was initiated by President George W. Bush. When he went ahead with the war in 2003, his approval rating shot up by 20 percentage points. But that was only temporary. After no weapons of mass destruction were discovered, his popularity plummeted as the United States fell deeper into the war. His approval rating reached 92 percent shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, but it nosedived to 23 percent during his last days in his office.
The forced labor issue may have a similar effect. If the Moon administration does not actively resolve this issue, anti-Japan sentiment will explode pretty soon — like a ticking time bomb. It may enjoy a victory in the parliamentary elections, but it will lose the people’s trust in the longer term. That will be a suicidal result. A diplomatic issue should not be politicized. The people are not fools.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 28, Page 30