Dealing with the Japanese

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Dealing with the Japanese

Park Geun-hye’s otherwise sure-footed approach to diplomacy has been tripped up by the Korea-Japan summit tar baby. Many appeared to think that a summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would instantly improve the deteriorated relation between the two countries, and they weren’t shy about making such a claim. As the government continued to ignore that view, they warned that Korea would become the odd man out in Northeast Asia now that China’s Xi Jinping agreed - with obvious reluctance - to meet Abe and even awkwardly shake his hand.

It is difficult for Park to suddenly change her position and sit down with Abe since she repeatedly made clear that some sincere efforts by Japan to atone for its wartime past are crucial prerequisites for the summit.

In this delicate situation, it is fortunate that there is another option. This is not the first time in recent memory that Korea and Japan are having rocky relations. The situation was similar 10 years ago, and the issue at the time was Dokdo. Japan’s Shimane Prefecture declared Takeshima Day in February 2005, fueling anti-Japan sentiments in Korea. (Takeshima is what Japan calls Dokdo.) President Roh Moo-hyun and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi clashed. They were both known for tough attitudes.

Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine splashed more fuel on the fire. Although former prime ministers of Japan tried to dissuade him, he visited the war memorial throughout his five years in office, claiming that he was making the visits to express his intention that Japan will not start a war again.

Roh didn’t sit with folded arms. He said there could be a diplomatic war. Korea-Japan relations reached the lowest ebb since the attempted assassination of President Park Chung Hee by Mun Se-gwang, a Japanese-born North Korean sympathizer.

Roh and Koizumi eventually sat down for a summit, but the mood was cold. During the two hours, they spent one hour and 50 minutes taking about history issues.

While the Korean media argued that Roh must teach Japan a lesson, other views were published that said he should act flexibly for the sake of national interests. The situation is similar today.

And yet, here is something we must not miss. Despite the leaders’ lack of love for each other, civilian exchanges have taken off. The two governments signed a visa exemption deal in March 2006. The so-called Korean Wave improved our country’s image in Japan. Trade has only grown through the years.

Although the leaders’ relationship may be more than rocky, this just shows that civilian exchanges can prosper even at times of stress.

Sentiments and practical considerations often collide in diplomacy, and the best resolution is taking care of both properly. A president must act sternly, while lower-level officials must try to seek mutual gains with Japan. One acts publicly, the others do their work behind the scenes.

A summit involves both public and behind-the-scenes maneuvers. It is helpful to think about how to ease anti-Korea sentiments in Japan, including hate speech. Books against Korea are currently exhibited at the National Assembly, and they reportedly became best-sellers.

It is also important to remember that hate speech from Japan is mainly targeted at Koreans. There are currently 500,000 Korean residents living in Japan, while there are 680,000 Chinese residents. At the end of last year, a Japanese government survey showed that 80.7 percent of Japanese people do not feel friendly to the Chinese, far higher than the 58 percent who feel unfriendly to Koreans.

And yet, ultra-rightists gather in Koreatown in Tokyo and shout that they want to kill Koreans. They stay away from Chinatown. Observers said they are doing so because they are afraid of the Chinese. We cannot let this situation continue.

It is also inappropriate to give up on reconciliation efforts because we are not pleased with the Abe administration. In fact, there is still hope.

In February, Prof. Hideki Noma, a specialist in Korean linguistics, held a humble ceremony to commemorate the publication of a book. Noma, who is also an artist, was captured by the beauty of hangul, the Korean alphabet, and it changed his life. He spent his entire life studying hangul and published his masterpiece, “The Birth of Hangul.”

This time, he published a new book in Japanese, a collection of Korean intellectuals’ writings, and tried to promote Korea in Japan. At the launch of the book, renowned Korean linguists including former and incumbent heads of the National Institute of the Korean Language attended the ceremony and celebrated the publication with all their hearts.

There’s more cause for hope. A Buddhist painting from the 16th-century Joseon period, which was believed to be plundered, was returned to Korea from Japan in June 2013 with the help of some conscience-stricken monks. There are many Japanese people who have faced up to their country’s past and worked for true reconciliation between Korea and Japan.

Showing hostility toward all Japanese is extremely foolish. Holding hands with those with consciences and ending anti-Korea sentiment in Japan are more important than promoting a summit.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 14, Page 32

The author is a senior writer on international affairs at JoongAng Ilbo.

by Nam Jeong-ho

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