Like it or not, Korea needs JapanSouth Korea’s cultural corner this summer has been raided by Japanese artists. Central figures are two Murakamis - internationally acclaimed writer Haruki Murakami and pop artist Takashi Murakami. Haruki Murakami is again a best-selling author in Korean bookstores with his latest novel “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” which comes three years after “1Q84.” Takashi Murakami, founder of the superflat postmodern art movement, which takes motifs from manga or anime, helped to draw three times the usual number of visitors to the gallery that sponsored his exhibition.
Japanese names are in fact most active in Korean art scenes. Exhibitions by Yayoi Kusama, famous for psychedelic and hallucinatory repetitive patterns like brightly colored polka dots, and Hayao Miyazaki, a famous manga artist and film director, are also frequent. The Japanese wave has never stopped flowing.
Yet Koreans’ overall interest in Japan has diminished over the years. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is held twice a year around the world for nonnative speakers to evaluate and certify Japanese proficiency. Koreans applying for the test by the end of last year fell 30 percent from two years ago. The dwindling interest in Japan and its language coincides with China’s rise. Koreans may think they know Japan more than China, since they are more familiar with Japanese literature and arts.
Fading interest and inattention to Japan is found among so-called opinion leaders as well. Many are worried that informal dialogue channels between Koreans and Japanese are almost absent these days. Even considering the shift of the region’s diplomatic center to China from Japan, the effect on the Korea-Japan relationship is too serious to overlook.
Some compare today to the period following the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 16th century led by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who dreamed of conquering China via Korea. Hideyoshi’s successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, attempted to normalize ties with the Joseon Dynasty. But bilateral relationships were beyond repair. During the invasions, as many as 30,000 people were taken to Japan. The land was devastated, buildings and historic sites destroyed and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed. The Japanese military even looted treasures from tombs of royal families. The king nevertheless agreed to make peace with Japan. Gwanghaegun, the 15th king of Joseon, who once declared he could not tolerate living under the same sky with the Japanese, nevertheless restored ties with Japan in order to fend off a new rising force in northeastern China. Korea is facing the same geopolitical challenge today with the rapidly growing influence of China.
South Korea is often referred to as a middle power. But in view of its natural resources and size, South Korea remains a small nation. It is dwarfed by global powers like the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
But it is all a matter of perspective. Things can look differently if we want to see them differently.
Recently, scientists and sociologists have begun to apply a sophisticated theory of networks to understand and untangle troubles through correlations and relationships rather than looking at individual parts. They conclude that power comes from the partnership and relationship with other players. A weaker party - when well-positioned at the crossing point of information and exchanges - can accumulate valuable resources and exercise influence.
The role of mediator between adversaries is equally appreciated and in demand on the global stage. South Korea is currently best qualified to play the role of peacemaker in Northeast Asia by acting as a bridge between North Korea and the United States and between China and Japan. It is not wise for Seoul to snub Tokyo and lose out on its chance to achieve a historic role. One cannot play the middleman if it sides with one particular party.
President Park Geun-hye received red-carpet treatment during her visit to Beijing, making the bilateral relationship with China rosier than ever. But the situation is different with Tokyo. Park has been in office for five months, but Seoul has not commented on plans for summit talks with Tokyo, which had been regularly held twice or three times a year.
Former President Lee Myung-bak met with the Japanese prime minister seven times during his first year in office. Soured ties owe much to the right-turn of the Shinzo Abe government. The landslide victory in Sunday’s elections for the Upper House is expected to give more legitimacy and strength to the nationalistic character and policies of the Abe administration.
Still we cannot ignore Japan. It would be more sensible to articulate and deliver opposition to Japan policies through summit talks or other high-level diplomatic channel. We can choose our friends, but not our neighbors.
*The author is senior writer for the JoongAng Sunday.
By Nam Jeong-ho