What Yoon Could Learn From Kim Dae-jung’s Dealings With Japan
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What Yoon Could Learn From Kim Dae-jung’s Dealings With Japan


APLN member Cheong Wook-Sik writes on the fundamental differences between the Yoon Suk-yeol administration and the Kim Dae-jung administration. Read the original article here.

There is a certain prerogative shared by conservative governments in South Korea that Yoon would do well to take advantage of.

There’s a certain “trump card” that the Yoon Suk-yeol administration and People Power Party (PPP) keep playing to justify their capitulatory diplomatic approach with Japan: the declaration issued in October 1998 by then-serving South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

Yoon has been especially active in mentioning how Kim’s actions in 1998 “opened up new horizons for South Korea-Japan relations after their previous turbulence,” and stressing how he himself learned from his predecessor’s historic decision.

But there is one fundamental difference: Kim Dae-jung confronted history head on, while Yoon has been ignoring it.

Another big difference has to do with the intended path forward. The core target of Kim’s foreign policy was the dismantling of the Cold War-era framework on the Korean Peninsula.

As part of this, he saw it as essential for inter-Korean efforts toward reconciliation and cooperation to be accompanied by the US and Japan establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea, thus putting the finishing touches on a new “cross-acceptance” framework on the peninsula. It was on that basis that he worked toward coordination with the US and Japan on diplomatic policies concerning Pyongyang.

In contrast, the Yoon administration has placed inter-Korean relations on the back burner and devoted its energies entirely to military coordination with Washington and Tokyo.

Yet another big difference is the fact that while Kim worked vigorously to head off Japan’s transformation into a major military power, Yoon welcomes that development.

To be sure, the North Korean nuclear issue of today is not the same as that of yesterday. In stressing the need for bilateral military cooperation with Japan and trilateral cooperation with the US, Yoon has pointed to advancements in the North’s nuclear capability as his main rationale.

But the situation in and around the Korean Peninsula early in Kim Dae-jung’s term was quite formidable too. Around the time he took office, predictions of Pyongyang’s “collapse” were rampant, and Washington’s North Korea policies were focused on that angle.

In August 1998, there was speculation about suspected nuclear facilities in North Korea’s Kumchang village, along with the first three-stage rocket test launch. In its shock over the Taepodong missile, Japan canceled plans to sign on for a share of funding for a North Korean light-water reactor and broke off negotiations on food aid and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the North.

To rescue a Korean Peninsula peace process that had yet to even get off the ground, Kim embarked on a difficult diplomatic campaign with Washington and Tokyo. The results of those efforts were the “Perry process,” the joint declaration with Obuchi, and trilateral coordination on North Korean policies with the US and Japan.

Objectively speaking, we might predict that if Kim were president today, he would find it very difficult to solve the increasingly complex issue that the Korean Peninsula’s situation has become.

Having dealt with numerous administrations to date in South Korea, the US, and Japan, the Kim Jong-un regime has concluded that dialogue and negotiations are pointless. It has resolved to address its security issues through nuclear capabilities, its economic ones through self-sufficiency, and its diplomatic ones through China and Russia.

To make matters worse, a situation akin to a new Cold War is unfolding in US-China relations, which has direct bearing on matters of the Korean Peninsula. When it comes to inter-Korean relations, the Yoon administration is facing the most difficult conditions and environment of any South Korean government to date.

While the environment is quite unfavorable, it also works to the administration’s political advantage. It is crucially important that the government and ruling party are aware of that fact.

The South Korean administrations that have been characterized as “progressive” — including Kim’s, Roh Moo-hyun’s, and Moon Jae-in’s — have never voluntarily postponed large-scale joint military exercises with the US. Why not? It’s because they have been obliged to take into account the red-baiting allegations and “weak on security” accusations they would inevitably face.

So what if the Yoon administration were to declare a moratorium on theater-level joint exercises with the US and propose dialogue to Pyongyang? In a sense, this kind of option is a privilege enjoyed by conservatives — as we saw in 1992, when the Roh Tae-woo administration declared a halt to the “Team Spirit” exercise based on close discussions with the US.

Conservatives also enjoy another kind of privilege. The Roh Moo-hyun and Moon administrations undertook historic arms build-ups, yet they still came under fire for “neglecting defense.”

The Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations slashed the increase in defense spending by half but did not face any similar criticisms. Meanwhile, thanks to the arms buildup efforts by progressive predecessors, the Yoon administration has inherited South Korea’s status as the world’s sixth-ranked military power.

Only once since South Korea became a democracy has the planned national defense budget actually been reduced. It happened during the Kim Dae-jung administration with the 1999 budget, which was allocated in 1998.

How was this possible? Because of the disastrous situation with the Asian financial crisis, conservatives and progressives alike agreed on the need to cut back defense expenditures.

Defense spending today is over four times what it was then. Livelihood conditions are just as grim now as they were at the time.

Under these circumstances, we might envision a scenario where the administration and ruling People Power Party allocate 50 trillion won for defense spending next year and freeze it at that level for the rest of Yoon’s term.

That could pave the way for them to pursue peace on the peninsula, while using the savings from the defense budget to help restore livelihoods and respond to the climate crisis. How about it?

President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a Cabinet meeting held at the presidential office on March 21. (presidential office pool photo)

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