Close to zero

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Close to zero

No signs of improvement can be detected since Korea-Japan relations hit rock bottom last year with President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Dokdo, his remarks on the Japanese emperor’s apology, as well as the postponement of a military intelligence sharing agreement between the two countries.

While some anticipated improvement under the Park administration, those hopes have failed to come true. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and some of his political allies have worsened the situation with reckless remarks. For now, the possibility of a summit meeting is close to zero, and the vice foreign ministerial-level consultation channel is all that’s been active.

Not so long ago, I had a chance to discuss the causes of the aggravation in bilateral relations with Japanese friends in Tokyo. They had very different views. They argued that the territorial and historical issues are only surface irritants. The real cause of tension, they said, was the Korean government’s tilt toward China. When I asked if the Japanese were jealous of President Park’s successful visit to China, they mentioned a book published in February entitled “Japan Confronting China, Korea Obedient to China” by Takabumi Suzuoki, a senior staff writer at the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. They recommended the book as a reading of attitudes currently held by the Japanese.

Suzuoki, who once served as Seoul correspondent, compiled his columns and interviews published on Nikkei Business Online. The book has proven controversial for three reasons. First, he claimed that Korea has taken a strategy of praising China and belittling Japan for economic and security reasons since China’s rise. Seoul is trying to sign a military intelligence protection pact with China, when the same agreement with Japan was postponed. The currency swap agreement with Japan has been suspended, while the same deal is extended and expanded between Korea and China. Also, Seoul is actively pursuing a bilateral free trade agreement with China.

Second, Suzuoki argues that Korea is trying to have it both ways by balancing Washington off of Beijing, but he predicted that Korea would ultimately part with the United States and follow China. The so-called Korea-China alliance would resolve the dualistic contradiction of “pursuing security with the United States and promoting economics with China” and establish a protection from North Korea’s nuclear threat while forming a united front against Japan. He writes that Seoul finds China especially attractive as it will fight Japan for Korea whereas the United States always discourages friction with Japan.

Third, Suzuoki recommends both the conservatives and liberals in Japan give up their fantasies about Korea. The conservatives need to realize that Korea will never be actively supportive of Japan as it was during the Cold War. The liberals should embrace the solemn reality that friendly relations cannot be expected. He asks Japan to plan its East Asian strategy by taking Korea’s pro-China tilt into account.

My friends’ perspective on President Park Geun-hye was interesting too. They emphasized the close ties between former President Park Chung Hee and former Japanese Prime Minister Nobuske Kishi. Therefore, the Japanese people hoped that Park Chung Hee’s daughter and Kishi’s grandson Shinzo Abe would be able to cooperate better than other leaders.

I found it astounding that the Japanese are blaming Korea’s foreign policy for friction between the two nations with no hint of penitence for the moves on their part that have brought Korea-Japan relations to such a low point.

Now that the United States and China are the two superpowers, Korea-Japan cooperation is more important than ever. Recognizing the need, the Korean government is seeking improved relations with Japan. Failing to notice Seoul’s sincere approach and blaming Korea for leaning towards China is a hasty geopolitical tactic that can only make Seoul tilt to China even more and isolate Japan further.

If the Japanese advocate their belief of the “legacy of Park Chung Hee and Kishi,” it would be a curse - not a blessing - for President Park considering domestic public sentiment. If they want to try to exploit the former friendship between Park Chung Hee and Kishi, Prime Minister Abe should make a drastic u-turn in his attitude on the territorial and historical issues.

What’s worrisome is that these claims might be the “inner thoughts” that many Japanese share. If so, the viability of the future of Korea-Japan relations would remain at close to zero. While Korea needs to make the usual diplomatic efforts to improve ties, Japanese intellectuals need to reflect on themselves and take an initiative in preventing a worst case scenario.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily.

*The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

By Moon Chung-in
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