Stop sneering at Japan

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Stop sneering at Japan

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Lee Chul-ho

Few would dare to publicly say that we need more pro-Japanese people considering the antagonism between Korea and Japan these days. But those words came from the mouth of Kim Gu, Korea’s most famous independence activist protesting against Japanese colonial rule. “The more Japanophiles who know our neighbor well, the better for Korea. We have to create them if there are none. I just do not like anti-nationalistic chinilpa [pro-Japanese],” he said, according to Korean-Japanese historian Choi Suh-myun. The latter was sentenced to life in prison while working for Kim Gu as a student activist after liberalization.

Lee Jae-yong, the vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, made a discreet visit to Japan at the end of last year. The world’s largest memory chip and mobile phone maker was mulling an additional equity investment in Sharp following last year’s 3 percent stake purchase. Shares of the Japanese display maker jumped 14 percent after the first announcement last March, which helped the struggling Japanese electronics company rebound. The first deal also allowed Samsung to secure a stable source of large LCD panels. It was a win-win for both electronics companies.

But the follow-up negotiations broke down. Sentiment between the two partners soured after an intense on-field and off-field rivalry during the East Asia soccer championship in Seoul. During a head-to-head match between the two regional heavyweights, South Korean fans held up a banner covering most of the width of one end of the grounds reading “A nation that forgets history has no future,” while Japanese fans waved a large Rising Sun flag, which Asians see as a symbol of Japan’s imperialist past.

The Samsung-Sharp partnership was hailed as a landmark technology alliance, but the Japanese business sector started questioning the possibility of technology leaks as a result of the Sharp deal. The two sides hardly could talk. With a distinctly rightist turn in the political and corporate sector, Sharp executives refused to meet their Korean partners for further business talks. One Samsung executive said the mood was as if they were having clandestine talks during wartime.

Japan is hardly an easy neighbor to have. It sits on a secret weapon to solve the gridlock of the inter-Korean relationship. Tokyo has been in secret contact with Pyongyang about normalizing diplomatic ties. Mongolia is also playing a special role. Mongolians are traditionally close to the Japanese. They have become important in Japanese sumo wrestling and the three most recent yokozuna, or top-ranked wrestlers, were all Mongolians.

In fact, Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj was the first foreign head of state to visit Pyongyang after Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as leader of North Korea, underscoring the traditional alliance between the Communist state and the Chinese neighbor. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also chose Mongolia as one of his first overseas destinations after taking office. He visited the country in March. The Mongolian president repaid the visit with a summit in Japan in September. This tripartite diplomacy stands out amid the geopolitical tensions and rivalries in East Asia.

The bargaining over repatriating Japanese kidnapped by North Korea and normalizing diplomatic ties has always been good for Japanese politicians. The approval ratings of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi gained 10 percentage points when he visited Pyongyang in 2002 and 2004 to negotiate the return of abducted Japanese in exchange for normalization of relations. The current right-wing Prime Minister Abe has gained the spotlight with his outspoken demands to bring home the kidnapping victims.

Abe accompanied Koizumi in his Pyongyang visit as chief negotiator and gained national popularity through the issue. The rise in his popularity helped him become prime minister for the first time in 2006. North Korea can also gain a lot financially from the normalization of ties with Japan. It is estimated it will pocket a share of compensation for colonial ties worth $20 billion to $30 billion. That would be 10 times what South Korea provided over the last 18 years.

Japan has turned more irksome and has become a bigger pain in the neck as a neighbor. But we shouldn’t be overly emotional about our neighbor. We, too, may be a bit too paranoid by associating Japan’s neo-nationalism with a return to full blown imperialism. Japan could not protect its force of 500 in Iraq because of its self-imposed pacifist Constitution and laws on its self-defense forces. Because it couldn’t attack even to protect itself, it had to seek help from Dutch forces. We should refrain from exaggerating Japan’s rightist sentiment.

We also need not be oversensitive about Dokdo. Some say we should station military troops on the islets in the East Sea, which the Japanese claim as their own. But we need not transform a peaceful group of rocky isles that are legitimately ours into a conflict zone by sending military forces there when a few security guards are enough.

Abe’s nationalistic rhetoric and behavior is purely a publicity stunt for his local audience and Japanese voters. What Japan is worried about is China, not South Korea. We needn’t snub handshakes or contemptuously dismiss conciliatory gestures from Abe. In fact, we can turn the tide in our favor if President Park Geun-hye accepts his offer of summit talks. Exchanges of sneers and shrill threats of economic retaliation don’t help anyone. The president’s own father, Park Chung Hee, pushed ahead with normalization of diplomatic ties with Japan amid strong protests. He said he’d leave the evaluation to the next generation. Former President Lee Myung-bak, who was an avid opponent of normalization during the last stage of his term, negotiated a pact on sharing sensitive military information with Japan.

In perilous and tense times like these, cool-headedness must prevail. Politicians should pay heed to the advice of their wise ancestor Kim Gu or other famous statesman like Abraham Lincoln, who had said, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”

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

by Lee Chul-ho

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