Start with a casual meetingThe strained Korea-Japan relations due to historical awareness issues are not likely to improve soon. It is quite unusual for the Korean and Japanese leaders to not face each other for more than 9 months after their respective inaugurations. In early September, both President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the G20 summit in Russia but did not hold a formal meeting. As the Japanese prime minister had made sure to meet with the Chinese president for a brief five-minute meeting, the lack of a Korea-Japan summit meeting is garnering more attention. It is understandable that a summit cannot be held unless Japan shows sincerity considering the controversies and differences in understanding outstanding issues.
It is undeniable that some Japanese politicians’ perception of history is backwards. While Abe mentioned the need to hold summit meetings with Korean and Chinese leaders during his visits to Singapore and the Philippines, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso poured cold water with his remark on Nazi Germany. Shimomura Hakubun, the minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, made disparaging comment in reference to Koreans. While Abe refrained from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, he revealed a half-hearted historical awareness by failing to raise an apology or any repentance regarding the wartime atrocities inflicted on other Asian countries, which had been expressed by previous Japanese leaders for over 20 years at the August 15 ceremony. So it is hard to overlook or give a tacit approval for Japan’s attitude.
However, unless there’s any political catastrophe, Abe is likely to remain Park’s counterpart for the next three years. If we merely remain strategically patient and hope his historical awareness will improve, we may need to remain not-so-friendly with Japan for a while longer. In the meantime, misunderstanding and distrust would grow, and the movements to criticize each other may amplify. The civilian and economic exchanges between the two countries would surely decline.
Japan may not be our best friend but it will always be a close neighbor. If we turn our back on the uncomfortable neighbor, we cannot build a mature relationship. It is hard to accept Japanese politicians’ distorted perception of past history, but not all share the position of the Abe’s cabinet. Last month, influential ruling and opposition politicians from Japan attended the Korea-Japan Forum, and their historical awareness was hardly crooked.
I want to highlight President Park’s message to distinguish Japan’s people from its politicians. We shouldn’t send a signal that Koreans despise Japan because of some politicians when most Japanese people are favorable towards Korea. If the Abe government’s historical awareness is so far from Korea’s perception, having a direct contact and conveying our position can be the right thing to do. We need to improve relations unless we want to part with Japan for good. There can be no progress without dialogue.
Korean and Japanese leaders will have to face each other in the multilateral meetings, including APEC and ASEAN+3 scheduled in October. I agree that we need preparation and time to have a formal summit meeting to have a frank discussion and resolve issues. However, that does not mean we need to delay a more casual contact to get to know each other at multilateral meetings. As long as the leaders fail to meet to seek solutions, neither side can initiate attempts for improvement. When an opening is provided by a meeting, those who wish to resolve tensions can move. If they avoid meeting each other, hardliners will continue to gain influence. Driving the Korea-Japan relations into further tensions will only result in greater burdens for both countries. Greeting the leader of a neighboring nation and preparing for a formal summit is the art of diplomacy, not disgrace.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is professor at the Graduate school of International Studies at Seoul National University and the director of the Institute for Japanese Studies.
By Park Cheol-hee