[OUTLOOK]Korea faces an altered Japan

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[OUTLOOK]Korea faces an altered Japan

These days, you can see large posters hailing the “Korea-Japan Friendship Year” at airports in South Korea and Japan: 2005 marks the 40th year of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan.
However, the summit meeting between President Roh Moo-hyun and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi several days ago was extremely chilly. The meeting lasted for two hours, but an hour and 50 minutes were spent on issues related to historical disputes between the two countries. Issues of mutual interest, such as a free trade agreement, was even not mentioned.
At the Jeju summit meeting in July 2004, President Roh showed sincerity toward Japan first by promising that he would not raise the historical issues during his term of office. Instead of giving a reciprocal gesture, however, Mr. Koizumi continued to visit the Yasukuni shrine and had disappointing responses to the Dokdo island and Japanese history textbook issues. The current strained relationship between the two countries seems to be the result of Mr. Koizumi’s attitude.
The Japanese prime minister’s political leadership is based on his popularity with the public, so it might be too much to expect him to make a historical decision. The shrine has become an even more serious issue, even as he stubbornly insisted on continuing his visits.
Tension on both sides had eased a little in the past year, as the mood between them was good. But as the problem this time involves ideology and politics, it will not be resolved easily. Bilateral relations have been tangled in a very bad way.
South Korea and Japan have experienced many similar crises in the past. They were resolved, however, by a strong current flowing under the surface, and a settlement was made unexpectedly each time.
There was an understanding that South Korea and Japan are neighbors and the ties are not breakable, whether they like it or not. This is why the leaders of the two countries met recently despite the pessimistic prospects, and agreed to meet again within the year.
The summit meeting itself is also changing. In the past, the heads of state refrained from outwardly expressing bad feelings toward the other side. Nowadays, they talk without reservations and openly express their regrets.
It might look a little rough, but it can be better for healthy relations to let out such bad feelings than let them fester. Yet it can be dangerous if it goes on past a certain point.
The most recent summit meeting is symbolic of the changing circumstances and relations between South Korea and Japan. It also reflects the political base and style of the two leaders. Both leaders consider popular opinion very important.
In the past, several factors worked together to prevent a catastrophe. First of all, it was the Japanese people’s remorse and guilty feelings toward Korean people. The Japanese were conscious, to a certain degree, that Japan’s history of invasion and colonization left them owing something to the Koreans.
When Japanese bureaucrats behaved arrogantly, pro-Korean politicians used to pacify the outrage of the Korean people. The politicians were mostly conservative rightists. Informal channels sometimes played a role.
The political leadership of both South Korea and Japan has drastically changed, but new ties of confidence have yet to be established. In the past, the strategic importance of the Korean Peninsula played a big role in Korea-Japan relations. There was a common understanding that South Korea was the bulwark against the Communist threat, which was a factor when the two countries struggled over the issue of large-scale economic aid. The United States has also exercised its influence over Japan in the same way.
But the situation is different now. Because of generational changes in Japan, the Japanese people’s guilt and remorse over past atrocities have faded to a large extent. There are people who say that Japan has done as much as it should, a mood that has ties to the ultra-rightist movement in Japan. Among young politicians, there are even those who question whether Japan committed any atrocities.
In the past, the South Korea-U.S. alliance has checked Japan, but Japan is confident now that its alliance with the United States is even more solid than our relationship with the United States.
In South Korea-Japan relations, the centripetal force has grown weaker, while the centrifugal force has become stronger. We have to face the changes in our situation, in which the elements of danger have become more powerful.
Therefore, while the issues related to history were discussed with a firm attitude, I regret that practical issues, like a free trade agreement that seemed to be within reach, were not discussed at the summit meeting. It is all the more regretful considering that we are suffering through a difficult economic period.
There may be people who are satisfied with the result of the summit meeting, but there may be many more who are worried about the future of our relationship with Japan. They worry because the meeting with Mr. Koizumi ended awkwardly, right after President Roh met with U.S. President George W. Bush in a not-too-friendly atmosphere.
We cannot help worrying because our relationships with our closest allies ― the United States and Japan ― have become estranged. In international relations, we have to have the strength to cope with the aftermath of an incident if we are to speak whatever we want and raise our voice when we disagree with our counterpart. Do we have many friends around us who will come to assist us in case of an emergency?
At the moment, the currents flowing in the international community are extremely delicate. It is necessary for South Korea to read them correctly and behave calmly and rationally during rapidly changing events.

* The writer is a columnist for the JoongAng Ibo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Woo-suk
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