[Viewpoint] Politicians should grow up

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[Viewpoint] Politicians should grow up

When Lee Jae-oh, minister without portfolio, donned an army uniform to pose as a coast guard officer on the Dokdo islets, it was nothing more than a farcical exhibition. Lee was reacting to news that right-wing Japanese lawmakers had planned on visiting Ulleung Island, which is about 92 kilometers northwest of Dokdo.

The islets - which are disputed between Korea and Japan - were thrust back into the spotlight when the Japanese lawmakers announced their trip and Korean lawmakers responded by planning to hold a meeting on the nation’s easternmost island.

Kang Chang-il, head of the special committee on Dokdo, and two fellow lawmakers angered Japanese conservatives in May by flying to Japan’s Kunashiri Island to study the territorial conflict between Russia and Japan. The Japanese right-wing lawmakers’ attempt to visit Ulleung Island had been a publicity stunt - a sort-of parody of their Korean counterparts’ visit to Kunashiri.

Yoshitaka Shindo, a lawmaker from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party who led the legislative entourage from Japan, used the same rationale Kang had used for his Kunashiri visit, when he tried to visit Ulleung Island. When Japan protested the Korean politicians’ visit to Kunashiri, Kang retorted that Tokyo was insolent to interfere with Korean legislators’ research trip to a territory controlled by Russia. But Dokdo is a different case.

The exhaustive exchange and salvo between politicians of the two countries over Dokdo presents both parties as childish and diplomatically incompetent. There are sensible ways to react to such circumstances.

Over Dokdo, the politicians acted without any consideration for the broader and future relations of the two countries.

Sensible people would try to see the bigger picture. They would stop and think out the consequences of their actions. Politicians should possess such basic intelligence. Last Sunday, some 2,000 Japanese staged an anti-Korea rally in front of the Fuji TV station that frequently airs Korean TV programs. The rally escalated to a political level and could strain and jeopardize the two country’s relations.

If the Korean legislators carry through with the meeting on Dokdo as planned, Japanese politicians could rush to Ulleung Island in protest.

Amid such heightened tension, the Japanese government could send a patrol ship to the islets or even officially lay claim to the islets - called Takeshima in Japan as part of Shimane Prefecture - as its territory. Then, Korea would be thrust into a full-scale diplomatic war with Japan.

Japan’s leadership is alarmingly incompetent these days. The country’s coalition has essentially been disbanded, and few politicians possess the leadership to contain and suppress irrational grandstanding by nationalistic politicians. Shindo, the grandson of a heroic commander of Japanese ground forces in the Pacific campaign during the Second World War, is a famously uncontrollable ultranationalist.

Originally, it had been four, not three members, who planned the visit to Ulleung Island. But Katsuei Hirasawa pulled out at the last minute. He had been persuaded by the former Liberal Democratic Party secretary general and conservative big wig Taku Yamasaki. Yamasaki rang Hirasawa after meeting with former Korean National Assembly house speaker Kim Soo-han during a Korea-Japan friendship association gathering. He also advised the LDP executives to announce their opposition to the individual members’ visit to Ulleung Island.

At least one member bowed out at the request of veteran senior politicians of the two countries. The episode underscores the role that senior politicians must play to iron out disagreements between the two countries. Korea lacks a specialized group of experts on Japan and personal connections with Japanese politicians.

In May of 2009, opposition Democratic Party of Japan members Yukio Hatoyama and Seiji Maehara formed a coalition to improve relations between Japan and Korea. They visited Korea in June.

Three months later, the Democratic Party defeated the long-serving LDP and Hatoyama became the prime minister and Maehara was named the minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. The latter served as the foreign minister under Prime Minister Naoto Kan and is tapped as a candidate to replace Kan. Korea’s political rapport with the LDP has became useless.

Instead of immature grandstanding, politicians should seek out more sophisticated and sensible means to address bilateral relations through establishing groups and communication channels with their Japanese counterparts.

To solve sensitive issues like Dokdo and inaccurate history textbooks, we cannot rely entirely on formal diplomatic channels considering the unique nature of Japanese culture.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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