How enmity turned into a partnership

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How enmity turned into a partnership

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Rivalry between neighboring countries is not uncommon. India and Pakistan is one example, as are England and France, Argentina and Brazil, and Indonesia and Malaysia.

But the Korea-Japan relationship is thought by many to be the most unique rivalry of all.

This is not only because of the intensity of emotions involved in the rivalry but because of the yawning gap between ill feelings harbored by the Korean side toward Japan and the utter disregard for that enmity among Japanese.

“The deep scars left on Koreans by past Japanese aggression, including colonial rule, and the lack of education in Japanese schools about their shared history have impeded Koreans and Japanese from moving forward,” said a historian in Seoul who requested to remain anonymous. “It’s like a boomerang that hit Korea hard once, twice, or maybe three times and then keeps returning to hit both countries.”

The deep historical rut may be giving way to a new era as the two countries strive to put a positive spin on the rivalry and turn it into a future-oriented friendship.

The apology Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan made for the 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea on Aug. 10 is considered to be the most sincere ever made to Koreans by a top Japanese politician. President Lee Myung-bak accepted his apology in a Liberation Day speech five days later.

That came as the two countries marked the 45th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral ties. But it was really Korea that reached out to its former foe to mend the relationship four years after the end of the colonial rule.

Korea set up a contact office in Japan on Jan. 19, 1949 and the two countries began negotiating diplomatic ties in 1952, reaching a diplomatic normalization pact, called the Treaty of Basic Relations, on June 22, 1965.

Despite controversy over the agreement, it was a starting point for the two countries to open a new chapter. Top politicians from both countries increasingly visited each other’s land.

Japan is now one of Korea’s strongest business partners, and a close political ally in matters concerning the Korean Peninsula.

Concerted efforts by both countries made that possible.

Discrimination against Koreans living in Japan has been eased over the decades with the Japanese government putting aside legal barriers. The finger-printing required of Koreans was abolished in January 1993. Regulations about registration of foreigners in Japan were relaxed a bit. Since Kawasaki city abolished the nationality barrier in public-servant recruitment in May 1996, many other rural governments in Japan followed suit, making it easier for Koreans to seek a public career in Japan.

In August 2003, the Japanese Education Ministry granted students from foreign schools, including Korean schools, qualification to get college admission.

It might be hard to imagine a time when Koreans weren’t allowed to see Japanese animations or movies, but appreciation of Japanese pop culture only became possible when former Korean President Kim Dae-jung initiated a series of policies allowing a gradual import of Japanese mass popular culture.

Both countries have been implementing visa-waiver systems for each other’s visitors since March 2005. About 4.4 million people from Korea and Japan travelled to their neighboring country in 2006.

The Korea-Japan World Cup in 2002 and the 40th anniversary of normalizing diplomatic ties in 2005 were milestones in the relationship.

The two governments both designated 2002 as Korea-Japan exchange year and 2005 as Korea-Japan Friendship year. A total of 890 cultural, political and economic exchange projects, including 39 government-initiated projects, were carried out in 2005.

As of 2007, 629,236 Koreans were living in Japan, including 523,119 permanent residents.

The economy is a big link.

Trade between the countries rose from $240 million when the two normalized diplomatic ties in 1965 to $78.5 billion in 2006.

Given such close economic ties, people wonder why the two countries don’t have a free trade agreement.

The two nations have actually spent the past 12 years hammering out an FTA, beginning with joint private research in December 1998. Business forums and joint industry, government and academic research followed. Then the two agreed to start official negotiations at the Korea-Japan summit at an APEC meeting in October 2003.

There were negotiations every two months since the first meeting in December 2003, but disagreements on agro-fishery trade, largely due to reluctance on Japan’s part to open up its market, brought the negotiations to a halt after the sixth round in November 2004.

But the two governments are showing signs they may restart talks.

The Samsung Economic Research Institute said in a report published in August that a Korea-Japan FTA is indispensable for the joint prospererity of both countries.


By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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