No meeting of the minds

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No meeting of the minds

Last week in Tokyo, Korean and Japanese journalists had an intense debate at the U.S. Embassy, a rare scene in front of American diplomats. About a dozen Korean journalists participated in a junket that brought them around U.S. military bases in Japan, an event co-hosted by the Korea News Editors Association and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo gave a briefing on U.S.-Japan relations and offered a separate discussion session with foreign policy and security specialists from major Japanese newspapers. The ground was prepared for Korean and Japanese journalists to have a war of words in extraterritorial territory in Tokyo below the flapping Stars and Stripes. Shim Kyu-sun, senior editorial writer for the Donga Ilbo and the leader of the Korean journalists, provided translations to facilitate a smooth discussion.

The Korean journalists focused on the rightist tilt in Japan and the plans to build up its military. They said they were worried about the possibility of Japan becoming a military power as the United States openly supports Japan’s efforts to secure the right to collective self-defense at the 2+2 meeting attended by the foreign and defense ministers of Japan and the United States. They addressed the risk of a revival of militarism if Japan exercises the right to collective self-defense without any kind of sincere reflection or contrition for its brutal, militarist past. Unless Japan faces up to its past and sincerely apologies, they said, we cannot expect peace in Northeast Asia and improvement in Korea-Japan relations.

The Japanese reporters argued that it was not right to mix historical issues with contemporary security needs. They said the purpose of securing the right to collective self-defense through a reinterpretation or revision of Japan’s postwar constitution was to be able to offer help to the United States and Korea in an emergency. So why are the Koreans so negative, they asked. They reminded the visitors from Seoul that a major purpose of the U.S. military bases in Japan was to defend them and their families in the Republic of Korea in case of any crisis on the Korean Peninsula. And Japanese citizens are paying to maintain those bases.

The Japanese reporters said that they understand China and Korea’s discontent over the history issue, but the Japanese people have grown tired of it and wonder how many more apologies they should make. Also, while Korea and China worry about the conservative swing in Japanese politics, it is limited to a certain group of people - predominantly politicians - and is far from a general trend in Japanese society. The reporters pointed out that though some Japanese politicians make provocative remarks, nothing can be done about that in a democratic nation that guarantees freedom of speech. They argued that the Japan Restoration Party led by Toru Hashimoto was crushed in the last election, and its defeat illustrates that Japanese voters bring extreme politicians - including extreme rightists - off their perches in the end.

The Korean journalists toured major U.S. military facilities in Japan, including the Yokota Air Base, Yokosuka Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma, Okinawa. They can all be converted to rear bases for the U.S. Forces in Korea without separate steps in any emergency. Wherever they went, the U.S. Forces emphasized that their presence in Japan was intended for the security of the Northeast Asia and Asia Pacific region, including the Korean Peninsula, and highlighted the need for trilateral cooperation among Korea, Japan and America. That was obviously one of the main purposes of allowing Korean journalists into the sensitive military facilities.

Korea-Japan relations have declined pretty precipitously. We are increasingly concerned about such rock-bottom relations damaging our national interests. If such tension continues, it would be a loss for both Korea and Japan. Trilateral cooperation would be a challenge to say the least. Washington is concerned about the Seoul-Tokyo discord and arranged the dialogue between the Korean and Japanese journalists. But the conversation ran along parallel lines - meaning the two sides never converged. The journalists confirmed the regrettable reality that even the media cannot be dispassionate when it comes to history.

On Korea’s concerns over the revival of militarism in Japan, a U.S. Embassy official said that it was understandable considering history, but Japan becoming a military threat to Korea is not a viable idea anymore. America supports Japan’s right to collective self-defense, hoping Japan will contribute more to peace and stability of the region. Korea would gladly embrace Washington’s position if Japan had made a sincere apology for the past. Koreans cannot trust Japan. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said at the National Assembly that the United States would not condone the rearming of Japan. We’re not so sure.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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