[Viewpoint] It takes two to tango

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[Viewpoint] It takes two to tango

As I prepared for my new post in Tokyo as a correspondent, a close source shared an anecdote to give me an idea on how to approach and deal with the Japanese people. What he related was a telephone conversation between President Lee Myung-bak and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan soon after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeastern coast of Japan in March.

Lee had been on a trip to United Arab Emirates for a signing ceremony for the country’s largest nuclear plant deal. As soon as the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan’s northeastern coastal region, the Korean foreign ministry proposed to Tokyo sending a large-scale rescue force.

But the Japanese government politely turned the offer down, saying a couple of rescue dogs would do. The Japanese people’s innate dislike to bother others, deep-seated tension between the two countries and national pride could all have been part of the reasons for the rejection.

But a telephone call between the two leaders cleared away the gunk in the diplomatic channel. Lee, who is well acquainted with Japan’s nature and pride, took a friendly but circuitous route to the main point of the offer to help. He told Kan the enormous disaster that hit Japan could take place anywhere on the earth.

“If such calamities hit us, I think Japan would be among the first to come rushing to help. Am I not right?” the Korean president asked his Japanese counterpart.

Kan naturally had to answer yes, that of course Japan would have been the first to offer help.

“Well, since your country is under such distress, we too as a neighbor should do everything in our power to help,” Lee responded. Ultimately the two leaders agreed that Korea would dispatch a 100-member rescue team to the crippled areas.

After the rescue team issue was settled, the Japanese prime minister assured Lee that the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi complex was different from the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine. He might have wanted to assuage international concerns about a nuclear meltdown and radioactive leak in Japan, a powerhouse in nuclear energy technology.

Lee, who worked on a nuclear plant project during his years at Hyundai Engineering and Construction, consoled the Japanese leader, saying he was an expert in the nuclear reactor business and he knew Japan’s nuclear disaster was very different from Chernobyl. The phone conversation ended very amicably.

My source may have wanted to underscore the president’s skills in diplomatic talk, but I discovered merit in the story from another perspective. The episode is a good example on how thorny civilian- and government-level issues can be ironed out through diplomacy at the top. If state leaders have a strong will, they can reshape relations between countries.

As a political correspondent at the Blue House for the last three years, I personally felt Lee was attached to improving relations with Japan. Even as bitterness and anti-Japan sentiment swelled recently due to the spat over the Dokdo islets, Lee toned down his rhetoric against Japan in his annual Aug. 15 Liberation Day address.

Even with the ruling party and some senior government officials proposing a military presence on Dokdo to demonstrate our sovereignty over the disputed islets, the president commented no more than: “Japan has the responsibility to teach the future generation accurate history.”

Kan is expected to step down within weeks amid poor approval rating and political pressure. It takes two to tango. We hope the next Japanese leader will be future oriented and work toward better bilateral relations. Among the frontrunners as candidates from the ruling Democratic Party to succeed Kan is Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

He recently irked Korea by defending the Japanese prime minister’s tradition of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war heroes, by saying the Class-A war criminals convicted by an Allied tribunal were not actually war criminals. If Noda wins the presidency of the ruling party and becomes the prime minister, we might as well fold any hopes for better and mature relations with Japan.

*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Seo Seung-wook
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