[FORUM]Don’t expect Japan to change

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[FORUM]Don’t expect Japan to change

The Korea-Japan Friendship Year, for which both countries have been earnestly preparing since last year, is off to a very unstable start. Thanks to the Dokdo dispute and the issue of distorted Japanese history textbooks, all activities commemorating the friendship year came to a halt, and the countries are now expressing some complicated emotions toward one another. The hotline between the heads of state of Korea and Japan does not work at all, and exchanges between the two countries’ schools, from the elementary to the university level, have been postponed or partially halted. Various local governments, both urban and rural, seem to be wondering whether they should continue their exchange programs, while keeping an eye on the situation.
If this state of affairs gets worse, the schedules of official and unofficial events between the two countries’ administrations, legislatures and judiciaries will be in confusion. Nor is that all. Korean military academy students dispatched to Japan’s Defense College will agonize about their future, as will Japanese military students at Korea’s army, navy and air force academies.
This is the sort of immediate cooling of bilateral relations that occurs whenever doubts and distrust arise over Japan’s attitude toward its history. The hanryu, the Korean pop culture boom overseas, has begun to fade as a topic of conversation here. The atmosphere is hardly ripe for a visit from Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He has hurt the pride of Koreans, and of President Roh Moo-hyun, too much.
President Roh’s visit to Japan on Memorial Day two years ago despite domestic criticism, and his participation in summit talks in Kagoshima last year, were expressions of the “participatory government’s” sense of confidence. Mr. Roh went so far as to say that he “would not raise the issue of Japan’s past wrongs.” His remarks drew criticism that he was taking a humiliatingly low-profile diplomatic attitude toward Japan.
President Roh may have felt betrayed by Mr. Koizumi when things took a turn for the worse. Japan undermined the moderate forces in Korea that had been trying to promote friendly relations between the two countries with an eye toward a new era. Whether intended or not, that was the result. Rumors circulate that an ultra-rightist plot might be behind the developments. In effect, the Korea-Japan Friendship Year is over.
In retrospect, there is a pattern in the long-standing historical conflict between Korean and Japan. Remarks by Japan’s famously overbearing politicians, or distortions of history in its textbooks, intensify anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea. This leads to an apology from Japan. A joint history committee is established between the two countries, and Korea quiets down.
Japan’s distortions of history have become almost periodic. Every time, Korea demands an apology. Japan becomes annoyed, asking why it should make yet another apology. An organization like the Korea-Japan joint history committee has never worked properly, and there are no leaders from either country who see to it that it does.
Such recurring conflict is too exhausting to be the fate of these nations. The expenses it incurs are huge. This cycle of historical friction, reminding one of a rat in a wheel, has not changed in 10 years, even 20. As far as history is concerned, the “future-oriented Korea-Japan relations” that have been repeatedly advocated by leaders of both countries are a fiction.
From Japan’s leaders, Korea has been expecting a historical perspective like Germany’s. That is the problem. Japan is Japan, and the Japanese leadership is preoccupied with its own kind of historical awareness. It behooves Korea to acknowledge this reality and strive for prosperity, while coexisting and competing with Japan. That is what an advanced nation would do. Building up our national strength and overcoming the disadvantages of history is the best thing we can do, and the best way not to be undermined by Japan’s notions of history. We should grow richer and stronger, and to do so, the most important thing is not to succumb to resentment. It is unfortunate that politicians try to use anti-Japanese sentiment for their own ends, and that the media rashly report the vehement remarks of some people without filtering them.

* The writer is the editor-in-chief of the monthly publication NEXT. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Chul-joo
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