[INSIGHT]Japan Sees Risk in Seoul's Policies

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[INSIGHT]Japan Sees Risk in Seoul's Policies

I participated in an international seminar in Japan on the future of Asia at the beginning of June. This gave me the opportunity to exchange opinions on current issues with Japanese foreign ministry officials, reporters and Japanese intellectuals.

Talking with leading Japanese intellectuals, who represent mainstream conservatives, gave me the uncomfortable and somewhat ominous feeling that the Korean government is not living up to the expectations of the world.

Moderate Japanese intellectuals are also worried that Korea-Japan relations are heading for a dead-end. However, their top concern is not the controversial history textbook published by the Japanese right-wing. This is because they believe that few schools will actually go ahead and use the textbook (published by Fusosha) as a teaching material. One person suggested that the textbook may sell well, due to heavy media coverage inside and outside the nation, but estimated that only around 3 percent of schools would actually use it to teach history.

What the Japanese intellectuals were most concerned about is what they see as the current tendency of Tokyo and Seoul to prioritize domestic issues above international relations. They were worried that their new prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who has little diplomatic experience, would lead the Korea-Japan relationship astray. They were anxious that the prime minister's announcement that he would pay his respects at the Yasukuni Shrine, where the Pacific War dead are buried, would provoke a backlash from Korea and China and weaken Japan's position in East Asia.

Their concern was that Mr. Koizumi, whose political position is still weak, might try to strengthen it by appealing to rightist sentiment, which could result in Japan's international isolation.

Japanese intellectuals also expressed concern on whether the current Korean government had taken up the textbook issue to prop up the dwindling political position of the Kim Dae-jung administration and boost popular support. They said it would be against the interest of Korea to be seen as forming common bonds with such leftist intellectual as Haruki Wada solely because he is against the adoption of the Fusosha textbook. Such a move would provoke the mainstream moderate and conservative intellectuals and make them hostile toward Korea.

The improvement in Korea-Japan relations is one of the greatest diplomatic achievements of the Kim Dae-jung administration, together with its "sunshine policy" of tolerance and engagement toward North Korea. Since diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan were normalized in the 1960s, political intercourse between the two nations has been confined to cozy contacts with conservative Japanese political leaders, influential figures of the Korean military regime and corrupt behind-the-scenes operatives.

To rectify this negative relationship there should be mutual exchange and understanding between the conservative and moderate intellectuals of Korea and Japan.

The partnership of Korea and Japan pronounced by President Kim and the former Japanese prime minister, Keizo Obuchi, was highly valued by Japanese intellectuals since it seemed like a future-oriented, healthy new start. But many Japanese intellectuals start to suspect that in fact this pronouncement concealed other motives. President Kim Dae-jung, they suggest, might have hastily promoted Korea-Japan relations - in spite of harsh domestic criticism - as a way to repress possible opposition from Japan when it came to pursuing engagements with North Korea. They express their concern over the consequences that can result from sidelining Japanese concern over North Korea policy.

Support from Japan and the United States is essential if Korea is to pursue fruitful North Korea policies in the long term. Korea has not yet received adequate rewards from the North that could justify damaging relations with Japan and the United States.

In addition, the United States is still displeased by suspicions that North Korea tried to negatively influence President George W. Bush's election campaign by bringing up the missile issue. Also U.S. displeasure over the insinuation that it is responsible for the suspended contacts between North and South is not yet resolved.

Japan is equally unsympathetic to Korean attempts to blame others for the stalled relations, which it feels have more to do with President Kim failing to keep pledges to the North.

The Korean government may be losing the confidence of Japan and the United States, the two nations that must be the greatest patrons of the sunshine policy if the policy is to yield lasting results. The government must work quickly to regain this confidence - particularly as the political stance of both countries tend to be defensive of their domestic interests.

President Kim Dae-jung's repeated entreaties for Kim Jong-il to visit Seoul imply that the continual postponement of the visit is the fault of the North Korea government. But here Seoul also risks losing the faith of North Korea, as it has both failed to carry out the rosy promises it made to the North and has not persuaded the Bush administration to change its North Korea policy.

The real risks could be making the engagement policy toward North Korea, including the sunshine policy, ineffective as a result of losing the confidence of both of our allies and our policy counterpart, North Korea.


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The writer is an editorial writer with the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Kim Young-bae

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