Fukushima Fallout Challenges Tokyo's Diplomacy with Seoul

Fukushima Fallout Challenges Tokyo's Diplomacy with Seoul

If South Korea and Japan falter in cementing their collaborative efforts, a change in U.S. or Korean leadership less invested in trilateral cooperation might derail progress.


The recent Camp David Summit marked a significant milestone, emphasizing the United States’ commitment to fortifying its Indo-Pacific partnerships in both economic and security realms. A standout accomplishment of the summit was the formalization of trilateral collaboration, anchored in the Camp David Principles. These guidelines reinforced the shared strategy of these nations amid a dynamic geopolitical landscape. Beyond outlining overarching principles, the summit paved the way for regular ministerial consultations and extensive cooperation spanning issues from defense to trade. The gathering also builds upon the thaw in South Korea-Japan relations, which have notably advanced since the inauguration of South Korea’s conservative president, Yoon Suk-yeol.

South Korea’s Media Echoes to the Summit


The summit received widespread praise from the American media, which heralded it as the dawn of a “new era of cooperation.” Central to this narrative was the proactive role of President Yoon. His endeavors to mend historical rifts with Japan, particularly by addressing the issue of Japan’s wartime forced labor, were deemed crucial. Many in the media lauded President Yoon’s conciliatory approach, a key driver behind the summit’s success.

Yet, responses within South Korea’s media were more nuanced. Conservative publications like Chosun Ilbo and Joongang underscored the landmark nature of the event, lauding South Korea’s pivotal role in the trilateral alliance and its promise for the nation’s future aspirations. Positive commentary in American media often buoyed these perspectives, particularly highlighting President Yoon’s leadership.

On the other hand, progressive newspapers such as The Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang Shinmun voiced more restrained views. Their commentary focused on potential compromises made by Seoul, especially in its negotiations with Tokyo. They underscored concerns about the neglect of critical issues, like the Fukushima Nuclear Plant’s water discharge decision.

Tensions Rise Over Fukushima Water Release

Japan’s decision to discharge water from the Fukushima plant into the Pacific Ocean triggered heated criticism in South Korean media. Among progressive South Koreans and advocates of the Democratic Party (DP), there is a perception that President Yoon’s diplomatic strategy has occasionally sidelined environmental and historical concerns. Recent polls, including those conducted by Hankuk Ilbo and Yomiuri Shinbun, revealed a staggering 83.8 percent of South Korean participants voicing opposition to the water discharge. Remarkably, this sentiment cuts across political lines. A subsequent survey by Hankuk Gallup echoed these results, underlining broad skepticism spanning the political landscape in South Korea.

Seizing on this widespread unease, the opposition party unleashed pointed critiques against Japan’s decision and Seoul’s implicit endorsement, branding it a grievous insult to humanity. They caution that this episode will taint Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Yoon’s legacies. The opposition’s sustained efforts to censure President Yoon and the People’s Power Party (PPP) over their foreign policy are not a recent phenomenon. They have persistently criticized the South Korean administration’s choice to negotiate with Japan on the wartime forced labor issue, a decision the current government views as integral to reinforcing the ROK-U.S.-Japan trilateral partnership.

South Koreans Worried About Japan’s Sincerity

The water release issue underscores South Korea’s reservations about Japan’s commitment to reconciliation. Although a recent poll indicates South Korean sentiment towards Japan is at its most favorable since 1995, the South Korean media remains wary. They spotlight the incongruence between Japan’s vocal expressions of collaboration with South Korea and the actual deeds of its parliamentarians. The visit by prominent politicians, including former Japanese ministers, to the Yasukuni Shrine—a symbol of Japanese colonialism from the Korean perspective—on August 15th intensified public skepticism about Japan’s genuine intent to heal historical rifts and strengthen ties with South Korea.

The recurring actions that ruffle the sensibilities of South Koreans, paired with calculated political rhetoric, resonate especially with those disenchanted by the current administration. A Gallup study revealed that of the 45 percent of respondents critical of President Yoon, foreign policy emerges as a significant point of contention. Within this group, 17 percent took issue with the administration’s perceived tepid response to the Fukushima water discharge, 13 percent aired grievances with diplomatic policies, 10 percent criticized Yoon’s perceived intransigence, and 5 percent spotlighted specific disputes with Japan.

Following the water release, criticisms of Yoon’s foreign policy could intensify, with opponents highlighting Seoul’s purported failure to protect vital national interests. As the 2024 legislative election looms just five months away, the opposition is poised to leverage these Japan-centric concerns more aggressively. They aim to bolster the prevailing sentiment among South Korean citizens against supporting candidates from the ruling party, counterbalancing the government that, in their view, already aligns with the majority opinion.

Japan’s Next Moves Are Crucial

While the unpopularity of Yoon’s decisions may not be the primary factor influencing his actions, internal party discord, exacerbated by potential electoral losses, could pragmatically affect Yoon’s future maneuvers. Yoon’s immediate momentum rises from the robust backing from his core party loyalists. However, if the ruling People’s Power Party faces defeat in the upcoming elections, the opposition may consolidate its already dominant position in the National Assembly.

Given this backdrop, it becomes crucial for Tokyo to exhibit gestures of genuine reciprocity. This includes a sincere acknowledgment of the water release concerns and a pledge to cooperate closely with Seoul to ensure maritime environmental safety. While the fruits of security and economic cooperation will take time to manifest, the immediate repercussions of decisions like the Fukushima water discharge may influence electoral contests.

A policy that lacks popular endorsement is inherently unstable and vulnerable to changes in government. The risks posed by unpopularity threaten the long-term viability of the ROK-Japan rapprochement. This principle is pertinent to South Korea’s domestic arena and extends to the fluctuating landscape of American politics. If South Korea and Japan falter in cementing their collaborative efforts, a change in U.S. leadership less invested in trilateral cooperation might derail progress. Thus, a resilient South Korea-Japan partnership, buoyed by committed leadership and popular support, becomes pivotal to navigate and withstand the vicissitudes of regional politics.

Jinwan Park is a political science student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, having previously studied for two years at Keio University in Japan. His past experiences include roles at the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. Consulate in Busan, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Image: Shutterstock.