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Asia's Game of Thrones
South Korea’s Elections Could Endanger Relations With Japan

South Korea President Park Geun-hye’s party lost a big election yesterday, and it could imperil the “comfort women” deal which has led to better relations with Tokyo. The Japan Times:

The conservative Saenuri Party became the first ruling party to lose a majority in the 300-seat National Assembly in 16 years. The divided assembly will leave Park’s government a lame-duck administration, despite mounting international problems that South Korea’s first female president needs to embrace before her term ends in early 2018.

“Park will definitely lose power and clout,” said Hideki Okuzono, an associate professor at the University of Shizuoka. “Overall, it will have a negative impact on Japan-South Korea relations.”

Still, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Thursday said Tokyo believes both the ruling and the opposition camps understand the importance of bilateral relations and Tokyo hopes for progress “at all levels,” including on comfort women.

“It is important for both Tokyo and Seoul to implement the agreement reached at the end of last year,” Suga told a news conference.

Most South Korea analysts are attributing the Saenuri Party’s losses to high unemployment and economic headwinds. South Korea’s economic challenges mirror those of Taiwan, which saw a power transition this year. The political dissatisfaction is the latest reminder of the challenge of maintaining stable growth in a post-industrial world—the middle classes of both Taiwan and South Korea were built on manufacturing.

Whatever their cause, if the elections make the “comfort women” deal fall through, that would undo a rare bit of progress in a region characterized by high tensions. Japan and South Korea need each other if they want to put pressure on China, and it’s been important that their leaders have demonstrated a willingness to put old controversies behind them. Since North Korea’s nuclear tests and China’s inability to get Pyongyang in line, Japan and South Korea have been working together more closely. Their partnership was enabled by the “comfort women” reparations Japan agreed to pay last December. The problem is that many South Korean voters see the arrangement with Japan as an outrage. Whether they’re right about that or not isn’t so relevant from a geopolitical standpoint. The point is that as Beijing becomes more and more assertive in Asia, rival regional powers will have a difficult time mounting an effective response if they can’t work together.

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