[Viewpoint] Dilemma on ending the vicious cycle

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[Viewpoint] Dilemma on ending the vicious cycle

A while ago, a Korea observer from Japan who visited Seoul gave his views about the Korea-Japan relationship.

“I have seen a common pattern in past Korean administrations’ Japan policy,” he said. “At the beginning of the term, it emphasized the future of the two countries and engaged in a friendship policy, but toward the end of the term, it emphasized the historical settlement and shifted to a hard-line policy.”

He also added that the Lee Myung-bak administration won’t likely break the pattern.

The observer, who helps Tokyo establish Korea policy, appears to make sense. President Roh Moo-hyun had pledged that he would not mention the two countries’s past during his term, but he eventually ended up declaring a diplomatic war against Japan. During his term, the Korea-Japan relationship turned into a catastrophe.

Roh’s predecessors were no different. President Kim Dae-jung had signed the Korea-Japan partnership declaration and lifted the ban on Japanese popular culture at the beginning of his term, but confessed his bitter feelings when a series of diplomatic disputes took place at the end of his term, such as Japanese officials’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and Tokyo’s approval of history textbooks that sugarcoated Japan’s colonial rule over Korea.

President Kim Young-sam’s Japan policy was not hard-line at the beginning of his term, but he also ended up saying, “I will teach Japan a lesson.”

The Korea observer from Japan blamed Korea’s domestic politics and electioneering for the pattern. He concluded that a hard-line Japan policy is the perhaps the best option for a president to pump up his approval rating at the end of his term and create favorable sentiment for the ruling party in the next election.

After fueling anti-Japanese sentiment, a president or a prominent politician will help the ruling party win votes.

His opinion seems to be a one-sided analysis, in that Korean administrations have calculated political gains by putting the Korea-Japan relationship on a diplomatic roller coaster, so I had to make an objection. I argued that the shift in tone of Korea’s Japan policy, which is repeated by every administration, does not happen out of the blue, but because of Japan’s provocation.

Not long after my meeting with the Japanese visitor, the latest Dokdo crisis took place. It started as a simple incident, but Koreans fueled it. As I observed the situation, I was reminded of the Japanese visitor’s argument.

Lee Jae-oh, minister without portfolio handling political affairs, probably knew better than anyone that Japanese lawmakers would be denied entry at the airport, but he still chose to head to Dokdo to work as a defense “guard” for a day.

Who can say with confidence that his action was not a populist move to win votes?

The Dokdo crisis is about to enter a second round. The minute Korean lawmakers hold a meeting on the island, the Japanese government will react.

Furthermore, the sensitive timing - ahead of Liberation Day on Aug. 15 - and the debate about what to call the East Sea will likely worsen anti-Japan sentiment.

The government will have no choice but to resort to a hard-line stance. Then everyone will pray for an end to the rift. No one has any serious ideas on how to end this vicious cycle.

If this situation continues with the current administration and then the next, yet another example will be added to the Japanese visitor’s hypothesis.

The paper will of course be titled “Analysis on the correlation between lame duck Korean administrations and the Korea-Japan relationship.”

*The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

by Yeh Young-june
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