The overwhelming loss that South Korean President Park Geun-hye's Saenuri Party suffered in an April 13 parliamentary election is expected to diminish the president's ability to unify various political factions. It is our hope, however, that the route of reconciliation and cooperation that Japan and South Korea have begun to take will not be negatively affected by the election results.
Ever since Park assumed the post of president in 2003, she has taken a heavy-handed approach to opposition parties and left-wing organizations critical of her. In the latest election, which served as a midterm evaluation of her administration, she is said to have tried to expel forces within the ruling party who had moved away from her.
The results of the poll reflect the political maneuverings of various political players eyeing the presidential election set for the end of 2017. South Korean presidents cannot be re-elected, and President Park has less than two years left in the office. If she continues to butt heads with the opposition and other forces as she has done thus far, she will likely face even more resistance.
The Saenuri Party's catastrophic defeat raises several concerns, including the effects it could have on the cooperative relationship between Japan, South Korea and the United States in dealing with North Korea's nuclear program, and a Japan-South Korea agreement reached in late 2015 over the issue of so-called "comfort women."
Since the 1998-2003 administration of President Kim Dae-jung, South Korean society has been split between progressives who place great importance on dialogue with North Korea, and conservatives critical of such efforts. The attitudes taken by these two opposing blocs remain unchanged despite recent exchanges of fire between the two Koreas, and North Korea's nuclear tests.
With the crushing victory of the progressive Minjoo Party of Korea, North Korea is likely to try pushing South Korea off balance and destabilize trilateral collaboration between Japan, South Korea, and the U.S.
An agreement was reached between the governments of Japan and South Korea late last year, in which it was decided that the South Korean government would establish a foundation to support former "comfort women," to which the Japanese government would contribute 1 billion yen. The South Korean government, meanwhile, agreed to work toward removing a statue of a girl commemorating "comfort women" that has been erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
President Park is said to be determined to carry out her end of the agreement. The Minjoo Party's election strategy chief Kim Chong-in, of the party' Emergency Planning Commission, also said during the election period, "It is an agreement between two states, and we are not in a position to amend it."
Yet, some among the opposition are seeking a re-negotiation of the "comfort women" agreement with the Japanese government, and there's a risk this could be used to attack the current South Korean administration. In particular, there is strong South Korean public resistance to the relocation of the statue in front of the Japanese Embassy. Efforts to follow through with the agreement are expected to be difficult.
The "comfort women" agreement between the Japanese and South Korean governments provides the underpinnings for putting bilateral relations on a forward-looking path. Moreover, the Japan-South Korea-U.S. alliance is dependent on a stable relationship between Japan and South Korea.
Japan, meanwhile, must also take the right steps. Japanese politicians must not seize on the opportunity of an unstable political situation in South Korea to make remarks that could undermine the bilateral agreement, and thereby upset the South Korean public. It is crucial for Japan to respect the efforts made by South Korea, and to protect the spirit of the agreement reached last December between the two governments.