Relations between Japan and South Korea have been rocky ever since the end of the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea in 1945. Image: iStock

There is a saying in South Korea that Japan is a mirror image of South Korea 10-20 years from now due to similar economic, cultural and social structure. Economically, South Korea is following the prolonged 20 years recession that has engulfed Japan since the 1990s. Demographically, South Korea also has a rapidly aging society, a phenomenon which has already prompted Japan to look at immigration and ways to raise fertility rates through welfare policies. Will Korea follow a similar path?

The Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) share many similarities. They are both left-oriented political parties facing right-oriented rivals – the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) in South Korea and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Japan. The DPK was elected in 2017 following the impeachment of president Park Geun Hye, and historically it was the incumbent ruling party during the Roh Moo-Hyun and Kim Dae-Jung administrations from 1998 to 2008. On the other hand, the DPJ was only in power for a brief period in Japan, when a coalition of parties kicked out the LDP in 1993 and from 2009 to 2012 following anti-LDP sentiments.

They are also similar in that president Park’s scandals involving interference from her close friend, Choi Soon-sil, and many other scandals helped the DPK seize power in 2017 while the seemingly corrupt and complacent LDP’s longtime dominance in Japanese politics since the postwar era fueled a yearning for change among the Japanese, which helped the DPJ rise to power in 2009. But the DPJ’s dominance was only short-lived following the mismanagement of the devastating tsunami in 2011, disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, personal scandals involving prime ministers, and US military base controversies.

Democratic Party of Japan

The DPJ came to power in the 2009 election due to the LDP’s failed attempts to implement structural reforms and prolonged economic recessions coupled with the Japanese people’s desire for new political leadership. Outlined below are the mistakes that led to the DPJ handing over power to the LDP in 2012.

(1) Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s pledge to move Futenma airbase outside of Okinawa and his personal scandal involving the acceptance of illegal political money.

The first DPJ prime minister in half a century, Yukio Hatoyama, promised to move the US air base from Futenma in Okinawa and broke his predecessors’ tradition of treating the US presence in Japan as an American birthright. “Hatoyama got into difficulty with the Japanese people because it was perceived that he was weakening the security of Japan,” says Tom Schieffer, US ambassador to Japan from 2005 to 2009. “The security of Japan is tied to the US-Japanese alliance, and it has been that way since the end of the war.” Moreover, bureaucrats were left out of the decision-making process, and the DPJ was not sufficiently organized to run an administration. He stepped down from office in less than a year.

(2) Prime minister Naoto Kan’s mismanagement of the tsunami disaster and the China fishing boat collision near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

The Tohoku earthquake and the following tsunami in 2011 had engulfed the northern parts of Japan and caused the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s approval ratings plummeted amid criticism of the slow pace of the reconstruction efforts and his early handling of the nuclear accident. Furthermore, he was criticized for acceding to Chinese pressure in releasing the captain of the fishing trawler near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. He eventually stepped down in August 2011.

(3) Prime minister Yoshihiko Noda’s mishandling of the ongoing Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands crisis and the sales tax hike

Prime minister Yoshihiko Noda purchased and nationalized the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, but faced much controversy because his decision violated a long-term understanding with China that neither government would do anything to upset the status quo over the isles. Furthermore, his efforts to double the consumption sales tax over the next three years caused rifts within the DPJ and faced opposition from other politicians as many believed raising the sales tax would kill the Japanese economy.

All of these setbacks culminated in a landslide victory for the LDP in December 2012. With the rise of independent voters the LDP (40% have no party affiliation) and the LDP being able to soften its image, the opposition parties in Japan have become more fragmented and weakened since 2012. Having won the majority of seats in snap elections in the lower house in October 2017, the LDP is still in power, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe secured his third term in 2018 September election, making him the longest-serving prime minister since World War II. In the end, the number of DPJ seats outnumbered that of the LDP only in 2009, and the DPJ has not been able to make a comeback to this day.

Democratic Party of Korea

In South Korea, the DPK has been the ruling party for over two years now following Lee Myung-Bak and Park Geun-Hye’s conservative administrations. Outlined below are potential factors that may derail support for the DPK.

(1) Economic recession aggravated by a rapid rise in the minimum wage, coupled with a rise in tax and an increase in government spending

The DPK has implemented various reforms and policies aimed at revitalizing the Korean economy. One of them is the so-called income-led growth strategy, where increasing welfare spending to help the poor is supposed to lead to the revitalization of the economy. I will not go into economic details here, but recent statistics only paint a negative picture with the unemployment rate creeping up and economic growth slowing down. In contrast to the strong performance of the Japanese economy, which has given Prime Minister Abe another term, the looming economic recession in South Korea could deal a critical blow to the DPK.

(2) Souring relationship with North Korea

One of President Moon Jae-in’s achievements has been to bring unpredictable North Korea to the negotiation table. Since the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump in June, however, there has been barely a tangible change, except for economic aid being sent to North Korea. A souring relationship with North Korea would disappoint Koreans who thought this time could be different from the past patterns. Moon has put in much political effort into improving the relationship with North Korea, and should those efforts become fruitless again, South Koreans would feel that their resources have again been wasted. A lot depends on the planned second summit in Vietnam.

(3) Radical policy changes in energy, education, healthcare and other areas that could backfire

President Moon has initiated many changes across different industries and institutions. For instance, he announced plans to denuclearize and increase renewable energy resources, increase healthcare coverage, increase the tax rate and abolish many special purpose high schools in South Korea. Policies always have both costs and benefits and their effects usually take time to crystallize; however, some people feel that such plans were being pushed too rapidly. One of the side-effects of rushed denuclearization would be a shortage of electricity, which has caused some people to complain during the summer. The ruling DPK and the Moon administration would run the risk of seeing significant side-effects of their policies if they are not implemented carefully.

In the end, it is difficult to draw a complete parallel between the two liberal parties in Japan and South Korea. They face different challenges and needs, and thus it is impossible to make a precise prediction for South Korea based on what has happened in Japan. However, it is evident that what keeps parties in power is not what the previous ruling parties have done wrong, but rather whether the incumbent parties could do a better job than their predecessors.

In fact, President Moon’s approval rating hit 48.8%, an all-time low since he took office in May 2017, according to an opinion poll by Realmeter released in December, 2018 –it has plummeted more than 30% from its peak. It will be interesting to see if the DPK can avoid the fate of its ideological counterpart in Japan by doing a better job in the near future.

This article is originally from Joon’s Blog


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