National interests matter, tooKorea and Japan are trapped in four issues: territorial disputes, Japan’s denial of history, comfort women and compensation for enforced labor during World War II. Both nations’ amicability toward each other has hit rock bottom. Japan’s direct investment in Korea plunged by a whopping 40 percent and Japanese tourists decreased by 23 percent last year. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s paying of respects to the Yasukuni Shrine makes it even harder to have a summit meeting between the two leaders. Never have we seen such icy ties.
Though the deteriorated relations owe much to China’s dramatic rise, the tensions basically stem from Abe’s twisted views of the past. Regardless, both sides have become losers.
With no improvement in sight, an interesting opinion poll came out. In a survey by the JoongAng Ilbo and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, 63.9 percent of respondents supported security cooperation between the two countries with China’s rise in mind. About half endorsed military cooperation, including sharing sensitive information with Japan, while 37.3 percent opposed it. Military cooperation was impossible during the Lee Myung-bak administration due to strong public resentment. More people (49.5 percent) backed a summit than those who opposed it (40.7 percent), and 57.8 percent even demanded President Park Geun-hye make efforts to improve bilateral ties.
Given the timing of the survey - shortly after Abe’s visit to Yasukuni - the results draw our attention. A considerable number of Koreans hope for better ties with Japan for practical reasons. Coincidently, the Japan Business Federation, the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Committee for Economic Development also underscore the need for a summit.
Both countries could find clues in the security area. Now that North Korea’s future is more opaque than ever, it could mean the beginning of a new power struggle - not the consolidation of Kim Jong-un’s leadership. Korea and Japan could find answers from a pact aimed at sharing military information on the North. Cooperation is crucial to building the foundation for reunification, as President Park has pledged. If both sides can find common denominators, mutual trust will grow. A restored relationship can also offer more diplomatic leverage as well.
Seoul needs to employ more flexible diplomacy with Tokyo. The government must urge Japan to have a fair historical perspective, yet ties should not be totally sacrificed. Perhaps we should have the wisdom to put national interests ahead of principles.