[Viewpoint] Let reason guide us

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[Viewpoint] Let reason guide us

President Lee Myung-bak may bear a personal vendetta against Japan. As the head of the student council at Korea University, he led student demonstrations in 1964 against the government’s plan to normalize diplomatic ties with Japan. In his memoir, he wrote: “It was unthinkable - and shameful - for our country to pursue normalization of ties through backdoor negotiations when Japan has not apologized for its colonization.”

As president, he became practical and sought to improve relations with Tokyo. After being elected, he said he wouldn’t insist that Japan apologize or show remorse in favor of more mature bilateral ties. A month after he was sworn in, he visited Tokyo and refrained from straight talk on contentious issues over Dokdo or past history. Liberals attacked and stigmatized him as “pro-Japan.”

But Lee was a completely different man when he visited Japan for summit talks in Kyoto in December last year. He bluntly told Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to take the initiative to resolve the thorny issue over Korean women who were forced to sexually serve Japanese soldiers during World War II. He declined to move onto other issues, spending as much as 45 minutes of the 57-minute summit on the single topic.

When Noda, uncomfortable at Lee’s intransigence, asked Seoul to remove the statute of a teenage girl sitting in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul erected by former “comfort women” to commemorate their 1,000th day of protest, Lee retorted by saying that the statue wouldn’t have been there in the first place if Japan were sincere. Without genuine action from Japan, he warned: “Another statue will go up every time a comfort women dies.”

On Friday last week, he took an unprecedented step as Korean president: He set foot on Dokdo, the easternmost rocky islets with rich fishing resources that Japan has lately been voicing claim to through diplomatic and defense documents and school textbooks.

On Tuesday, he heightened his rhetorical pitch, demanding the Japanese emperor apologize for the country’s colonial-era atrocities if he wants to visit Korea. “There is no need for him to come if he fumbles for words for a few months and can only come up with vague words like regret,” he said.

It may not have been a prepared comment as it came out during a question-and-answer session with students, but he nevertheless hit a nerve during the diplomatic spat over Dokdo with the Japanese. Lee may now go down in history as the president who fell out with Japan in the shortest amount of time.

But Lee is going through a phase most Korean presidents experience during their terms. During the honeymoon period, most presidents were eager to seek rapprochement on the past and push bilateral ties to a future-oriented level. The wording on the early-stage statement on bilateral relations was more or less the same: “Korea and Japan should resolve unfortunate past issues and work toward genuine partnership for the future.” But presidents usually lost patience with Japan toward the end of their terms.

When Japan repeated its claim on Dokdo, President Kim Young-sam warned that he will “teach Japan a lesson.” President Roh Moo-hyun lashed out, “Dokdo is our land. It is not just part of our land, but one that bears scars of the painful 40-year history.” President Kim Dae-jung - who lived in Japan in political exile in the 1970s as a dissident - said he was distressed upon learning Japan glorified colonization of Korea in school textbooks.

The next president won’t likely be any different. Some may say Korean presidents resort to offensives against Japan during their late-term lame-duck periods for political gain. But more fundamentally, it is because Japan is different from Germany. Japan has frustratingly been evasive and reluctant in resolving issues relating to wartime and colonial excesses. Japan - still haunted by memories of atomic bombings - is convinced it was the victim rather than the criminal. It still maintains that it helped to “liberate” and modernize its neighbors through colonial governing.

The country’s falling economic and diplomatic influence on the global stage has also accelerated its turn to the right. Japan has been snubbed by China in economic rank. We may have a lot more to get upset about with Japan in the future if we imagine how tense and sensitive a player can be after he has been elbowed from a top position.

But we should not forget one thing. Over three million Japanese people visit our country each year and over two million from Korea go to Japan. The country is our second-largest trading partner and we are the third to Japan. We let out a sigh of relief when Japan signed a currency swap pact with us in 2008 amid the financial meltdown. Whenever North Korea makes a provocative move, we ask if Seoul has a close intelligence connection with Tokyo. The two countries are inevitably interwoven. Moreover, the country is still one of the wealthiest.

Love or hate it, we cannot do without Japan. We, therefore, need to seek a balance between the past and future. A symbolic visit to Dokdo may have been necessary. But referring to the emperor may have been excessive. The main opposition party, which criticized Lee in the past for being too friendly with Tokyo, is wrong to attack him now for his Dokdo stunt.

Former Prime Minister Park Tae-joon, who built the country’s largest steel mill, Posco, with Japanese funding once said, “On Korea-Japan ties, we tend to be led more by emotion than reason. If we really want to be good neighbors, we all need to restrain our emotions a little and let reason guide us more.” The advice he gave in September 1992 is still relevant today.

*The author is deputy editor at the politics and foreign affairs desk of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Ko Jung-ae
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