[VIEWPOINT]Japan a Key to Future in Northeast Asia

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[VIEWPOINT]Japan a Key to Future in Northeast Asia

South Korea, Russia, China and Japan are the leading countries in Northeast Asia. The four nations share borders or are entangled with each other in their economic, political and military strategies, and their ideological alliance, history and culture. In terms of military matters and ideology, Korea and Japan are interwoven, for better or for worse. From an economic, historical and cultural point of view, the two countries and China share a close involvement. Add Russia when it comes to a wider perspective of strategic relationships involving North Korea and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

Another party of interest, which none of the four countries can disregard, comes among them: the United States. Those five countries cooperate sometimes and conflict at other times, depending on what is at issue.

Such complicated interests were unimaginable during the Cold War, when the five countries, which could fairly be called the major players in Northeast Asia, were divided into two axes, protecting exclusive interests of each other. One axis was the capitalist, democratic one of the United States, South Korea and Japan, while the other involved communist countries such as the Soviet Union (Russia), China and North Korea.

It was in the early 1990s when fundamental changes in the two axes began. The 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul caused Korea to wake up to the importance of the other axis. Seoul's Roh Tae-woo administration began to push its policy of mending fences with the Communist bloc. In Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev's reform drive of perestroika and glasnost took effect. In addition, China's experiment with economic reform showed some results, bringing to light a possible emergence as a new growth engine in Asia.

Unfortunately from Japan's point of view, changes in the axes in the region began to occur at a time when the world's second biggest economy entered a prolonged recession. Koreans' friendly sentiment toward China, Russia and North Korea has been intensified by the Kim Dae-jung administration's "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North.

Just as irredentism once prevailed in Germany and Italy, Korea's resentment of its long-time allies, Japan and the United States, grew more intense because of diplomatic friction, trade pressures, the Status of Forces Agreement for the U.S. troops stationed here and Japan's whitewashing of its wartime atrocities in its controversial school textbooks. Instead, friendly feelings about the northern countries - North Korea, China and Russia - became stronger.

Against the backdrop, the recent conflict among Seoul, Moscow and Tokyo over banning Korean fishermen from fishing for saury in the disputed Kuril Islands has forced the three countries to do invisible but complicated calculations. Koreans railed at their government for being impervious to overseas information and too amateurish in its reaction. But after their anger settled down, Koreans came to rethink Japan and Russia. Although Russia says that it would not trade good faith for temporary economic interest, or to prevent a conflict, it betrayed Korea at a crucial moment. This may add fuel to Koreans' deep-rooted distrust of Moscow. Since the launch of the Junichiro Koizumi cabinet, Japan's diplomacy has soured a future-oriented partnership with South Korea. The prime minister visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors convicted war criminals, in disrespect of sentiment in neighboring countries and attempts to justify the textbook that downplayed Japan's aggression during World War II. So Tokyo has given Koreans the impression that rather than working out problems through talks with its neighbors, it tries to stir up disputes and then secure its interest through negotiations.

If Japan can look ahead for the new century and realize that it belongs to Asia, it should not arouse conflict further with its neighbors. If Japan continues to implement policies that sour ties with neighboring countries, particularly South Korea, its only alliance partner in Northeast Asia in terms of democracy, human rights and market economy, it would be replaced as an ally by China.


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The writer of this article is the editor for international news at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Seok-hwan

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