[Viewpoint] In search of a leader with visionThe Japanese political system is a theocratic democracy. In Japan, the tenno, or emperor, stands for sacred dignity. In Japanese political culture, any criticism toward the emperor is accepted as an extreme provocation. There is no exception for ruling or opposition parties, the left or the right or the pro-Korea group or the anti-Korea group. And the reactions to President Lee Myung-bak’s demand for the Japanese emperor’s apology are even more hasty and more volatile.
President Lee has a reason to criticize the emperor, and he should do it. But there was a lack of strategy. The Dokdo visit and demand for the Japanese emperor’s apology were his final cards, and Lee used them both at the same time. It is important for the president to be resolutely determined before making a decisive move. But Lee’s demand for the apology was made at a routine time.
Lee’s visit to Dokdo was dramatic, but it didn’t change Japan’s desire for the islets. And nothing has changed about Korea’s sovereignty over Dokdo. A territorial dispute can be resolved through a war or an armed provocation. It is rarely resolved at the International Court of Justice.
The series of longtime territorial disputes surrounding Alsace-Lorraine between France and Germany is a classic example. The winner of the war controlled the territory.
The dispute over the Falkland Islands is another example. In 1982, Argentina lost to the United Kingdom in the Falklands War, and the islands fell under the British control.
There is no risk of a war surrounding Dokdo right now because of military alliances between Korea and the United States and between the United States and Japan. The priority of the United States is to keep China in check. The conflict between Korea and Japan goes against U.S. interests in the region. Will this continue? Factors of instability exist and an uncertain future looms. Japanese naval power overwhelms that of Korea. Korea’s military power along the east coast near Dokdo is also weaker than that of Japan. In 2015, the Korea-U.S. alliance will have a substantial change as wartime control will be handed over to Korea and the combined forces command system will see a change. The changes will take place in the middle of the next president’s term.
Japan attempts to erase its military past and will try to isolate Korea from other powerful nations. Japan is having another territorial dispute with China, but its attitude is different. Japan wants to keep its flexibility, and China doesn’t want to push its relations with Japan to the extreme. And flexibility is what we should fear. The following anecdote is a great example:
During the Kim Young-sam administration, Kim had a summit in Seoul with then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin in November 1995. The two leaders criticized Japan. “I witnessed a massacre by the Japanese military in Nanjing when I was young, but Japan flatly denies it,” Jiang said at the summit.
And a press conference took place afterwards. While Kim said, “I will teach Japan a lesson,” Jiang didn’t talk about his experience in Nanjing. And at the end of Kim’s term, the foreign exchange crisis hit Korea. Kim asked for Japan’s help, but Tokyo rejected it. Kim could not teach Japan a lesson, of course.
Korea-Japan relations are at a low point. Korea must build its power independently. It cannot ally with China, because Korea has experienced disputes over history and territory with China as well. China argues that Ieo Island, located south of Jeju, belongs to it. To borrow China’s power, Korea must pay for it. And the United States remains neutral on the Korea-Japan territorial dispute.
Redefining Korea’s relationship with Japan will only be possible when the next president takes office. Little, however, is known about the presidential candidates’ foreign affairs strategies. The ideas of Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in have only been hinted at, while Ahn Cheol-soo’s capability and vision have hardly been articulated. The only thoughts and language we have heard from Ahn came in the form of a TV appearance and in his book. Why does he maintain his standoffish attitude? Perhaps he is not ready to give his position on international affairs or he may be too smart.
Diplomatic words and actions of a president decide a country’s destiny. A president’s language can destroy the status quo. It has enormous power to break through a situation with a strong provocative stimulation. Presidential diplomacy is something that cannot be reinforced through the support of an aide. It is a field where leadership capabilities are concentrated. But in the months ahead of the presidential election, candidates are not talking about foreign and defense affairs.
Northeast Asia is in turmoil similar to that of a century ago. Korea, however, is different from where it was as it has achieved prosperity and a strong military. China is rising again, but the geopolitical characteristics of the Korean Peninsula remain unchanged.
During the next president’s term, the order on the Korean Peninsula will face a dramatic reformation. The Korea-U.S. alliance will be realigned, and the sustainability of the Kim Jong-un regime of North Korea will be decided. Japan will change and China will be stronger. There will be fierce diplomatic and military races among Korea, Japan and China.
The time is desperate for Korea to have a historic, imaginative leader. The leadership will decide the nation’s future. A leader with diplomatic vision and capability is what we need, and it is crucial for the presidential candidates to upgrade their campaigns.
For Korea, its survival strategy in the 21st century will be exports and diplomacy. There is not enough time to make candidates actually compete to demonstrate their capabilities, which is a crucial right of voters. Foreign and defense affairs must be top priorities in the presidential campaign. That should be the key to a successful presidential victory.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Park Bo-gyoon