Dealing with JapanMany worry that Korea-Japan relations at this point are the worst ever since the two countries normalized diplomatic ties 50 years ago. That is not actually true. The two countries actually talked about severing diplomatic relations after Kim Dae-jung was kidnapped in 1973 and then Mun Se-gwang, a Japanese-born North Korean sympathizer, killed first lady Yuk Young-soo in the subsequent year during a failed attempt to assassinate then President Park Chung Hee.
Despite the turmoil, the two countries are close neighbors today. Every year, about five million people travel between Japan and Korea as tourists, while the amount of trade between them is $90 billion a year. Japan is Korea’s third largest trade partner, and it supplies many core components for major industrial products. Korean celebrities are welcomed in Japan and Japanese restaurants are hard to avoid in the lanes of Seoul.
It is natural for neighbors to encounter problems in areas like trade, fisheries, culture, immigration and drug control. But if they are wise, they find the wisdom to resolve their differences. France and Germany, which fought against each other for centuries, improved their relations after World War II and that can be an example.
Why did the relations between Korea and Japan worsen? First, the gap in the two countries’ national powers has been significantly reduced. About five decades ago, Japan’s economy was 20 times bigger than Korea’s, but now it’s only 3.4 times stronger. In terms of the per capita gross national income, Japan is only 1.4 times richer than Korea.
After the Cold War ended, Korea built stable political and economic positions. In contrast, Japan suffered long-term stagnation since 1990. China’s economy became bigger than Japan’s in 2010 and the Japanese people became frustrated about the country’s diminishing status. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, therefore, is maximizing Japan’s strategic value and pledged that Japan will play a central role in the Asia policy of the United States.
Today’s Korea-Japan relations are very tangled. After Japan’s Shimane Prefecture declared a Takeshima Day in 2005 - a promotion of Japan’s sovereignty claim over Dokdo, which it calls Takeshima - Korean President Roh Moo-hyun posted a statement on the Blue House homepage condemning the Japanese government. The Korean people could easily relate to that gesture, but it wasn’t a matter that deserved a president’s attention. Unless war was imminent between the two countries, it was enough for a senior official from the Foreign Ministry to complain.
The president deviated from the existing pattern of the bilateral diplomacy to boost his own popularity rather than resolving the problem between the two countries. Roh tried to split Korean society between pro-Japan and anti-Japan groups so that he could expand his supporters.
His attempt to persuade the public that the founding of the Republic of Korea without resolving the issue of Japanese collaborators was an embarrassment, but it was effective. Korean society became haunted by a confrontation between pro-Japan and anti-Japan groups. That attitude helped doom President Park Geun-hye’s prime minister-designate Moon Chang-keuk. Critics of Moon condemned him for having a historical sensibility favorable to Japanese colonialism.
Abe is leading a right-wing policy with attempts to glorify the country’s past and actively visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, where Class-A war criminals are buried. That is also an attempt to use Korea-Japan relations for domestic politics.
When political leaders of the two countries ignore the long-standing traditions of diplomacy, the path to friendship and mutual prosperity will go into the woods. President Park, who understands Abe’s motives, cannot shake Japan’s hand without hesitation because she cannot ignore Korean society’s expected protests. Park’s stern approach toward the history issue has played the role of checking Abe’s attempt to turn Japan toward the right.
Until now, Park has not used Korea-Japan relations for domestic politics. She only played defense to stop public opinion toward her from worsening amid a split in Korean society between the pro-Japan and anti-Japan groups. The time has come for Park to make a political proposal to normalize diplomatic relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
It is fortunate that the two countries recently started addressing the history issue separately from other pending issues and held economic and security dialogues. Pressing issues cannot wait any longer simply because the Japanese continue to play games on the history issue.
In order to maintain a reasonable distinction, what will be necessary? It is crucial that the two countries’ leaders must stop using bilateral relations for domestic politics. That does not mean that they have to change their basic stances toward the history issue. They must keep their principles but refrain from making any political attempts that will worsen the situation. Diplomatic negotiations between Seoul and Tokyo must be normalized and the leaders just need to oversee the situation and set the direction. Then, the two countries’ relations will develop smoothly through exchanges and trade.
For Korea, a calm attitude to observe the situation is necessary. As long as the Koreans continue their efforts to lay bare the truth about the history of colonialism and World War II, the past wrongdoings of Japanese imperialism will eventually be made public. Korean society must not tolerate Japan’s attempts to distort history. The world will not accept distortions of the truth, and that is the destiny of the issue.
The truth may be a train that is delayed. It will be late, but it will come.
Historians from Japan and from around the world have already started criticizing the Japanese government’s attempts to deodorize its history. This shows that everything will eventually boil down to the truth.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, June 19, Page 29
*The author is the president of the National Development Institute and former director-general of the Asia and Pacific Affairs Bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.