Talking with the foe

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Talking with the foe

Neighbors must get along. To do so, they must talk to one another. So should South Korea and Japan. As a journalist, I shouldn’t really have to write about something so obvious. Under our present circumstances, I must do so.

During a birthday meeting with Japanese reporters in December 2001, Japanese Emperor Akihito said he felt a certain kinship with Korea because the mother of an 8th century Japanese emperor was Korean.

It was not the first time he shared this genealogical information. In 1998, he told visiting Korean President Kim Dae-jung that the mother of Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, came from Korea’s Baekje Kingdom and apologized for Japan’s colonial past, which caused great pain to Koreans.

On the following day, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi offered an unusually forthright apology for Japanese colonial occupation. In a statement, he “humbly accepted the historical fact that the Japanese colonial rule had inflicted unbearable damage and pain on Korean people and expressed remorseful repentance and heartfelt apology for the ordeal.”

Those words sound unbelievable given the unrepentant attitude of the current conservative Japanese government. But they were actually uttered. Experts on both sides of the Pacific should look back upon those days. A belle epoque, or beautiful age, existed between the two countries. South Korea remembers how much it needed Japan during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s when it had to seek an international bailout.

President Kim Dae-jung once said out of 1,500 years of exchanges between the two countries, relations were bad during seven years under Toyotomi Hideyoshi and about four decades during the Meiji Restoration period and afterward. He emphasized the need for a stronger bilateral relationship, saying it was a shame that 1,500 years of historical ties were ignored because of a bad time that lasted only half a century.

A sage 500 years ago said, “A non-ally state would want you to stay neutral while an ally would always want you to come to help with arms.” The nature of men and the dilemma of states is no different today and will likely be unchanged in the future. We just have to make the least damaging choice. What was a good idea yesterday may not be today. That is why the government must continue its research and studies.

Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, said that in diplomatic procedures, differences are expressed and heard out, but that doesn’t always iron out the differences. Patience and continued endeavors are necessary in order to produce an outcome in diplomacy.

We recall the uncomfortable spat with Japan last year after former President Lee Myung-bak caused an uproar with his blunt criticism of Japan’s stance on the “comfort women” issue and his symbolic visit to Dokdo, the center of a long-lasting territorial and diplomatic dispute. His chief spokesman, Lee Dong-kwan, met discreetly with Japanese officials during the standoff. When people asked him why he did so, he replied that continued efforts are all part of diplomacy.

South Korean and Japanese leaders turn their backs on each other even when they meet at international events. Lower-level officials hardly talk. What is the use of envisioning a peaceful and cooperative security framework in Northeast Asia while leaving out Japan, a key member? We now address Japan with the kind of hostility the ruling party reserves for the opposition and vice versa.

Japan is fundamentally to be blamed. The shift by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - toward the right, remorselessness and military re-strengthening - shows no respect for the feelings of its neighbors. But like it or not, we cannot change the fact that we are neighbors and must maintain diplomatic ties.

We again go back to President Kim Dae-jung. His meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in 2001 was disastrous. Bush addressed him as “this man.” Kim was furious that the American president was disrespectful to him as well as his people.

But a year later, when Bush talked about having dialogue with North Korea, he cited the example of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who attempted to have dialogues with the Soviet Union, which he famously called the “Evil Empire.” The late president Kim said, “Talking with a friend is easy and foe difficult. But dialogue is sometimes necessary for the needs and interests of the country.”

The governments in Seoul and Tokyo should heed that advice.

*The author is the deputy editor of political news at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Ko Jung-ae
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