&#91VIEWPOINT&#93Why can't Japan and Korea be friends?

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[VIEWPOINT]Why can't Japan and Korea be friends?

On Jan. 22, two of the world's leading powers celebrated the 40th anniversary of a remarkable reconciliation. At the historic Palace of Versailles, France's President Jacques Chirac and Ger-many's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder toasted a treaty signed in 1963 by their visionary predecessors, Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. After three fierce wars be-tween 1870 and 1945, new leaders resolved that this must never happen again. Ancient enemies had to learn to become best friends.

That is statesmanship. Which, sadly, is a rare quality in East Asia. Seeing how close France and Germany are today, despite differences and occasional rows, is a painful reminder of half a century of lost opportunities in this region. One has to ask: If in Europe old foes could bury the hatchet, why can't Japan and South Korea do the same?

Despite past enmity, and much as each views the other as a polar opposite, Japan and South Korea have far more to unite than divide them. They share a dual heritage of Buddhism and Confucianism, gained from China. Both are seagirt, hilly, resource-poor, temperate, densely populated rice cultivators, who live by trade and on their wits.

Their modern economies compete across the board, from ships to chips. But this creates shared interests in an open global trading system. Japan and South Korea are the sole Asian members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Develop-ment, the global grouping of developed countries. Their institutions and governance have similarities too ?hardly surprising, given 35 years of Japanese rule in Korea. Korea Inc. was designed to emulate Japan Inc., even if Seoul is now superseding that model faster than Tokyo has so far.

Both countries import all their oil and gas and rely heavily on nuclear power -- giving them shared anxiety about the Middle East and a common need to protect Southeast Asian sea lanes. Each is a close if not always smooth ally of the United States, whose troops they both host. North Korean missiles and worse threaten them alike. While transcending the old Cold War divisions, Japan and South Korea each have cause to keep a wary eye on the uncertain evolution of their giant neighbors, Russia and China. And both are liberal democracies.

In sum, a Martian coming new to this would ask: Why are two neighbors with so much in common not the best of friends? Why don't they all learn each other's language? Why wasn't a free-trade area, now under endlessly slow consideration, created years ago? Why isn't there intimate institutional cooperation between Japanese and Korean parliamentarians, bureaucrats, academics? Why not pool re-sources, seek a common voice?

Alas, these are rhetorical questions. In 2003, 58 years after the end of World War II and of Japan's occupation of Korea, it is frankly ludicrous that issues from a long-gone past, however hurtful, should still obstruct much-needed future-oriented cooperation.

Both sides' political elites are to blame for this absurd and damaging state of affairs. Japan should long ago have apologized, once and for all and sincerely, for the sins of empire and properly compensated "comfort women" and other victims. The Yasukuni shrine issue must be settled: Why not build another? Revisionist textbooks, whitewashing the past, hardly help.

Yet Koreans too are at fault. To be colonized, often brutally, was the common fate of the non-Western world. But most got over this. Nations, like individuals, need to heal and move on. To harp on the past and cultivate a sense of national victimhood creates warped perceptions and bad choices. Many young South Koreans dislike Japan and the United States, but like North Korea and China. That is what happens when feeling trumps rational calculation.

Some leaders on both sides have tried to change all this, above all Kim Dae-jung and the late Keizo Obuchi. But the next South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, is unknown in Tokyo and proud of never having visited the United States. Another trait Japan and South Korea share, alas, is an inward-looking and self-obsessed political culture -- a dangerous weakness in an era of globalization.

Is Lee Soo-hyon forgotten already? Two years ago this brave young Korean student died trying to save a drunk from the path of a Tokyo train. His grandfather had been a slave laborer in Japan; yet Mr. Lee came to learn Japanese. For a moment his death touched both nations; then it was back to business as usual.

When will the majority, on both sides of the Sea of No Agreed Name (and what a stupid row that is), at last awaken and wise up to how much they have in common, put future before past, and belatedly begin the active alliance-building that should have started half a century ago?



Aidan Foster-Carter is

honorary senior research fellow

in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in the United Kingdom.


by Aidan Foster-Carter
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