MB mucks things up

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MB mucks things up

If not for President Lee Myung-bak’s out-of-the-blue stunt of traveling to the Dokdo islets, we may have watched the head-on collision between China and Japan over uninhabited rocks in the Southeast China Sea with cool-headedness, calculating our end of the zero-sum game. But that’s wishful thinking now. We have our own fight with Japan to worry about. The president, whose job is to solve problems, is actually the problem now.

Our president has jeopardized bilateral relations by making impromptu comments and actions without thinking through the ramifications as well as longer-term strategy on contentious disputes over Dokdo and historical issues, including Korea’s “comfort women,” or sex slaves during World War II. His missteps are threefold: the surprise visit to Dokdo; a remark with contemptuous implications about Japan’s waning influence in the world at large and its status in the international community; and a demand for the Japanese emperor to apologize to the Korean people for brutalities under colonization.

He hit the hottest button with the demand of an apology from the emperor. The emperor is sacred to many Japanese. The emperor embodies the roots of the Japanese psyche and loyalty to the world’s oldest hereditary throne is an intrinsic part of the Japanese tradition and culture. In the historical context, current Emperor Akihito has more understanding and amicability toward South Korea than the average Japanese person. Consider this: Japan’s Heian period (794-1185) is dubbed as the golden era of Japanese art and culture primarily under Emperor Kammu, who still remains one of Japan’s favorite and admired historical figures. Akihito publicly said he felt a personal attachment to Korea because his ancestor, Emperor Kammu’s mother, had been of the line of King Muryeong of the Paekche Kingdom in Korea.

When it comes to ideological demographics, 70 percent of the Japanese population is considered to be conservative and the remainder is liberal. Of the 70 percent that are conservatives, 10 percent are extreme rightists. And even the emperor is apprehensive of the ultra-right group, especially since they use his symbolism and authority any way they like. The 60 percent of Japanese who are moderate conservatives are big consumers of Korean pop culture. The leftist 30 percent are against their country’s turn to the right and believe their government should admit blame, apologize and pay damages to war victims, including the women the imperialist military forced into sexual slavery. Our public diplomacy should be aimed at the majority 90 percent moderate conservatives and the liberal Japanese population. But we may have lost many of them because of recent incidents.

President Lee’s Dokdo visit inevitably deepened anti-Korean sentiment among the extreme rightists. But their lashing out against our president making a stop in our territory cannot gather a wide consensus. Lee’s comment about the emperor is different. Demanding the emperor apologize to the Korean people if he wants to visit Korea — even though he had no such plan in the first place — and coming up with lame explanations later was a pretty pitiful spectacle. The presidential office tried to play down the comment, explaining to Tokyo that Lee was answering a question and was unaware the TV camera was rolling. It finally disavowed that the president meant the country desired a formal apology for colonial excesses from the highest level in Japan, as high as the emperor. It was all an amateurish diplomatic performance.

Japan responded with fury. It announced it will unilaterally take the question of sovereignty over Dokdo to the International Court of Justice and threatened to scale down or scrap currency swap arrangements between the two countries. It also bought advertisements in Japanese newspapers to declare the volcanic islets its territory. It is all part of a mad political show by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. By hyping the incident and winning favor from nationalists and conservatives, Noda is hoping to maintain power in November parliamentary elections despite his party’s poor approval ratings. The implications for Korea-Japan ties and regional stability are the last thing on his mind for the moment.

The spat is escalating to an all-out diplomatic war which could cost two countries a heavy price. Japan may be out to trigger capital flight by threatening to cut currency swaps with the precedent of a massive exodus of Japanese capital in 1996 following then President Kim Young-sam’s harsh word against Japan a year earlier. Korea ended up with a liquidity crisis and eventually had to seek an international bailout in 1997. Japan’s Foreign Ministry employs 5,648 and runs on a budget of 8.9 trillion won. The Korean counterpart is hardly a formidable competitor with 2,189 staff and a budget of 1.97 trillion won. In resources and financing, the Korean diplomatic team faces a hard battle.

But we have a powerful secret weapon in this fight. We are right. Nevertheless, we need a good strategy. No matter how many times they shake hands, the odds of the two leaders mending ties during their tenures are close to zero. The sun is setting for the Lee Myung-bak government. If it still attempts to hog the limelight, it will only end up losing more cards for the incoming government.
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