Korea, Japan must embrace evolving ties, professor writes

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Korea, Japan must embrace evolving ties, professor writes

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently sent a message to President Park Geun-hye expressing his desire to hold talks soon. But soon after, two of his cabinet members paid a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which houses war criminals among its fallen.

The Korean government was receptive to Abe’s proposal, but quickly regretted that reaction just days later.

But Cho Se-young, a former official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who currently works as a professor at Dongseo University, has answers for the government regarding its response to the Japanese government’s fickle attitude.

In his book “Fifty Years of Ties Between Korea and Japan: Footprints of Conflict and Cooperation,” Cho defined relations between the two as “relations that have endured dark and light periods for a long time.”

In his book, Cho writes that historical issues are part of this dark side and can’t be addressed quickly, while seeking out cooperation on security and economic affairs is part of the light side.

The Korean government should be able to separate those dark issues from the lighter ones, Cho argues.

According to his analysis, the Korean government needs to improve its relations with Japan next year, which will mark the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean Peninsula and the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties with Japan.

“It is urgent for Korea to reshape relations with Japan in accordance with a renewed landscape of hegemony, and to increase cooperation with Japan on the unification of the peninsula,” Cho said in an interview with the JoongAng Sunday. “The two countries will face a crisis if they stubbornly maintain the same relationship they established 50 years ago.”

Q. What is the key message of your book?

A. Korea and Japan’s diplomatic ties were normalized after three and a half decades of Japanese colonization. Economy and security have been the pillars of these relations. In 1965, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. It was so poor that borrowing $10 million from abroad become news, which shows how desperate the country was for foreign capital.

Japan was the only country that could lend Korea money. In that year, Korea and Japan officially formed diplomatic ties, and Japan lent $500 million to Korea, which served as the seed for the country’s economic development.

The second pillar was security, but Japan didn’t really pay much attention. In 1965, the Vietnam War broke out, but Japan focused more on the economy than security, putting less than 1 percent of its GDP toward national defense. At the time, Korea said Japan should make more of a contribution to global security and support Korea.

Initially, Japan had pretty favorable relations both with North and South Korea, but the assassination of former first lady Yuk Young-soo in 1974 by Mun Se-gwang, a Korean-Japanese man, changed Japan’s stance.

Mun used a gun that he stole from a police station in Japan. The country initially denied its responsibility, but later it began supporting Korea, saying that it felt guilty in terms of morality. Based on anti-Communism sentiment, Japan and Korea started building relations based on security, too.

In terms of economy and security, how close are Korea and Japan now?

As the gap in national competitiveness narrows, economic cooperation has weakened significantly. Korea had to ask Japan for as much as $4 billion for economic cooperation until the 1980s, but it became capable of standing on its own in the 1990s.

Collaboration on security also got weaker as Korea became closer to China. There needs to be an evolution in Korea-Japan relations. Korea needs a more equal relationship with Japan, both in terms of economy and security. Korea would do well to seek a bilateral free trade agreement with Japan. Korea also needs to utilize Japan’s support in realizing inter-Korean unification.

What do you think about the scrapped military information protection agreement between Korea and Japan pushed by the former Lee Myung-bak government?

The cornerstone of Korea’s security policy is the country’s alliance with the United States as well as United Nations’ member countries. This means Korea’s security policies exist within the framework of Korea-U.S.-Japan security.

To a reasonable extent, Korea needs to cooperate with Japan in terms of security. Even if the agreement is signed, Korea can selectively choose information that it wants to share. Korea has a similar agreement with Russia, which was once a Communist country.

Since Japan has a competitive edge in collecting information through satellites, while Korea is better with human intelligence, the two countries will complement each other when it comes to exchanging information.

How can Japan play a role in unifying the Korean Peninsula?

When Germany was unified in 1990, the French and German leaders talked over the phone almost every day. Korea also needs close cooperation with neighboring countries. The Korean government needs to take a careful approach in maintaining relations with Japan. How the Korean president deals with Japan has always been a matter of populism.

After ties were formed on June 22, 1965, former President Park Chung Hee said, “It is sagacious to hold hands with yesterday’s enemy, if needed for tomorrow.”

Such an attitude is really necessary today. The Korean government should be able to compartmentalize controversial issues to cooperate with the Japanese government - historical issues and the Dokdo dispute.

Even though the United States calls on Korea to reconcile with Japan on those concerns, we can’t just cover them up and move on.

For the sake of its people, the Korean government should take stern measures against inaccurate arguments by the Japanese government while maintaining a cooperative attitude in terms of other dilemmas.

Do you think the two countries will see a good outcome in the meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye?

If the two heads are going to be coy due to differences of opinion on major issues, it would be better they don’t meet. I’m talking specifically about the 2011 summit. There was fierce public opposition to the discussion and it did not have a good outcome.

For now, it would be better if President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met after they have narrowed their differences. But the foreign affairs ministers need to meet up as soon as possible to help iron out those differences.

What is Japan’s stance when it comes to the changing landscape of Northeast Asia?

Japan is very keen on the changing power structure in the region. It will keep making efforts to get rid of its war criminal title, which may increase unease in the region.

To prevent that, a trilateral cooperation system involving Korea, Japan and China should actively be led by Korea. Korea needs some creativity in its diplomatic strategy.

BY KANG CHAN-HO [ssh@joongang.co.kr]
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