No eternal friends and foes
In international politics, there are no eternal allies or perpetual enemies. For the national interest, countries would not turn down an alliance with the devil.
After Hitler’s invasion, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill evidently believed in the maxim.
When the Parliament criticized the alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union, he said, “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”
This is not just a story in the textbook of international politics. It is the precise reality of the Northeast Asian region over Dokdo and the “comfort women” issues. No one can be sure when the Korea-Japan relationship could change from partnership to hostility.
The Korean government has been confident about the future-oriented Korea-Japan relationship transcending historical antagonism.
The administration secretly pushed for cooperation in military information with Japan in response to the emergence of China and an alliance between China and North Korea. Moreover, Seoul has formed a virtual alliance with Japan, with the United States at the center.
However, the Korean government’s Japan policy is on the verge of collapse. It may be the karma of naively handling the historical and Dokdo issues. Since the People’s Administration, Korean presidents have been advocating “future-oriented Korea-Japan relations beyond the past.”
President Roh Moo-hyun made an appearance on Japanese television and said that Japan was his favorite country. President Lee Myung-bak did not hesitate to pursue military cooperation with Japan.
However, these moves have been countered by the Yasukuni Shrine visits, bringing up the Dokdo issue and a denial of comfort women. The recent friction has been foreseen, but no one knows how far the impact of the collision will spread.
In all respects, the basic frame of the peace and stability of the East Asian region is maintaining the status quo. Considering the Korea-Japan relationship, status quo means Korea’s effective rule over Dokdo, Tomiichi Murayama’s apology for colonial rule and Taro Kono’s statement acknowledging coercive recruitment of comfort women.
However, the Japanese government is making systematic moves to break the status quo by denying them. Its movements may fundamentally change the game for friends and enemies in Northeast Asian international politics.
A commentator compared the Korea-Japan relationship to two trains running at each other head-on. They are only looking at the signals on their sides. So without proper traffic control, they may end up in a direct collision.
Traditionally, the United States has played the role of traffic control. However, Washington is in an awkward position, since it has built alliances with both Japan and Korea and cannot simply take one side.
Nevertheless, a direct collision between Korea and Japan may bring tremendous tension to America’s East Asian strategy in response to China’s emergence and North Korea’s nuclear program.
So State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “Both of these countries are strong, important valued allies of the United States. It is obviously not comfortable for us when they have a dispute between them.”
But Washington is making Korea nervous. The Japanese media reported that Washington supports Japan’s policy to bring the Dokdo case to the International Court of Justice.
If it is true, we cannot help but doubt Washington’s true intentions. We are reminded of the ghost of the secret Taft-Katsura agreement, which made Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula possible.
So we must watch America’s role. If the United States wants to maintain cooperation among Korea, the U.S. and Japan, it needs to transmit all available signals to prevent a collision.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is playing the role of directing traffic at the APEC Summit in Vladivostok, Russia. She urged Japan and Korea to “lower the temperature” on the territorial issue, and her advice cooled down the tension for now.
But the United States needs to take a step further and play an influential role to urge Japan to go beyond the historical issues and become a true partner. Economic and security cooperation is not enough to maintain the Korea-Japan-U.S. cooperation based on a virtual alliance.
Henry Kissinger had told Zhou Enlai, “China by tradition has a universal outlook, but Japan has had a tribal outlook.” So the Japanese are not sensitive toward other countries. We need to keep this national characteristic in mind when dealing with Japan.
It is clear what we need to do until Japan finds its way to win trust. We’d better not care about what Japan should do. Instead, we need to pay more attention to what we need to do to protect our own interests.
* The author is a political science professor of Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong