Diplomatic tensions are on the rise between South Korea and important powers in the region at a time when the government in Seoul has been weakened and divided by the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.
Park was suspended from office in December after the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to impeach the president for alleged involvement in a multimillion-dollar influence peddling scandal.
The prime minister is currently acting head of state until the Constitutional Court either upholds the impeachment motion, prompting a new presidential election, or returns Park to power. It could take months before South Korea again has a fully functioning elected government.
Japan analyst Hosaka Yuji with Sejong University says widespread public disapproval of President Park in the wake of her impeachment has undermined support for one of her key diplomatic achievements, ending the long standing dispute with Tokyo over the issue of “comfort women.” This name was given to the over 200,000 women throughout the Pacific region who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during both WWII and Japan’s colonization of Asia.
“The legitimacy of the agreement between South Korea and Japan on the “comfort women” issue has disappeared in South Korea,” said Hosaka.
The governments of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park reached a 2015 settlement that relieved Japan of any further responsibility and liability for all past wartime grievances. The deal included a written apology from Prime Minister Abe and a pledge by Tokyo to provide $8.9 million to support the surviving victims.
Japan for its part requested that South Korea remove a “comfort woman” statue that sits across from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. For years activists have staged weekly rallies at the site to demand Tokyo make a sincere apology and official restitution. The South Korean government agreed to try to facilitate this request but backed down when confronted by angry groups representing the surviving comfort women. These advocates denounced Abe’s apology as insincere, demanded official reparations from Tokyo, and vowed to continue their protests.
Many of Abe’s nationalist supporters, who downplay the extent of the atrocities committed by the Japanese military during that period, were also unhappy with the prime minister for agreeing to make any form of apology.
The deal is now in danger of falling apart after a second “comfort woman” statue was placed in front of the Japanese consulate in the South Korean city of Busan. In protest, Japan this week recalled its ambassador and consul general to South Korea, and last week suspended currency swaps with its neighbor. Prime Minister Abe has demanded South Korea remove the statues, saying, “Even if the Korean government changes, the Korea-Japan ‘comfort women’ agreement must be carried out.”
On Monday, a leader of the Democratic Party in the National Assembly called for the government to terminate the agreement and return Japan’s money.
But on Tuesday, acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn urged all sides to respect the agreement and refrain from further escalating tensions.
Meanwhile, China has reportedly been taking retaliatory measures to punish South Korea for agreeing to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.
Seoul and Washington argue that the advanced THAAD system that uses infrared seeking technology, six mobile launchers and 48 interceptor missiles is needed to defend against North Korea’s advancing ballistic missile development efforts.
China has voiced its strong opposition to the THAAD deployment in South Korea, saying it will only provoke the North to further increase its military capabilities, and complained that the radar system can be used against other countries in the region.
South Korean media outlets say Beijing has recently banned Korean airlines from running private charter flights between the two countries during the upcoming Chinese New year holiday this month. Beijing has also been accused of limiting the number of Chinese tourists in South Korea and barring some K-pop Korean music groups from entering China, forcing them to cancel their concerts.
In the wake of Park’s downfall, some opposition leaders in Seoul have called for the THAAD deployment to be delayed to appease China. A group of South Korean opposition legislators recently traveled to Beijing to discuss the issue.
Woo Su-keun, a professor of international relations at Donghua University in Shanghai says Beijing is now increasing pressure to take advantage of the political turmoil in Seoul.
“China sees South Korea's impeachment as a golden opportunity not to be missed. By showing that it will be difficult to deal with China if South Korea pushes ahead (with the THAAD deployment), China is trying to change the situation,” said Woo.
Some political observers are also concerned that without strong leadership in Seoul, U.S.-South Korean ties will suffer, if as expected, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump exerts pressure on South Korea over trade and defense cost sharing after he takes office later this month.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.