Tolerating AbeWe are awaiting the statement by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and it could be a watershed for Korea-Japan relations. There are somewhat exaggerated anticipations that he will be more progressive this year. That may be too hopeful. After two days of investigations in Tokyo, my tentative conclusion is that we must be prepared to be dissatisfied with Abe and his speech.
No one can say with certainty what Abe will say. And yet, there appear to be glimmers of hope. According to Yoichi Funabashi, the former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun and current chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, the savvy of two hardline rightists in Abe's advisory group has been countered by several liberals.
Professor Yoshihide Soeya of Keio University said he has few expectations for the statement, although he is interested in seeing how Korea's expectations and Abe's basic ideology can be reconciled. He holds the pessimistic view that Abe does not attach great significance to Japan's relations with Korea. He said that even for China, Korea does not mean much. Given the two Korea experts' broad knowledge on China, we can hardly take their comments lightly.
Another problem that is just as serious as Abe's statement this month is Korea's deepening diplomatic isolation as a result of a rapid rapprochement between China and Japan. This is an offshoot of Korean diplomats' fantasy that Korea-China relations are better than ever, and the wishful thinking that prospects of Seoul-Tokyo ties are bright thanks to President Park Geun-hye's demonstration this year of an intention to improve the ties. Our foreign affairs officials have misled not only the people, but also the president. According to Funabashi, Chinese President Xi Jinping, ahead of his planned visit to the United States in September, is hurrying to improve Beijing's ties with Tokyo in order to improve China-U.S. relations.
According to Funabashi, Abe's diplomatic strategist Shotaro Yachi recently visited China and met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and State Councilor of China Yang Jiechi, who oversees foreign policy, and made a breakthrough in the strained relations. Abe has an ambitious summit diplomacy itinerary, including a visit to China in early September followed by Xi's visit to Tokyo early next year. Although tensions appeared to be rising in the South China Sea due to China's attempts to reclaim small islets to expand its territory and build a runway for potential military purposes, Xi sent a message to Uncle Sam that there is nothing to worry about, and America is also refraining from overreacting to the situation. That's because Washington also wants Beijing-Tokyo ties to improve.
As the dynamics of Northeast Asia are basically a confrontation between the team of the United States and Japan versus China, Korea has fallen into a critical dilemma. Our foreign ministry's prediction that the situation could be a blessing to us was basically wrong. Because we read the situation in the wrong way, our response could never have been appropriate. Professor Soeya said it was fortunate for Abe that Xi has decided to improve China's international relations in general.
It is true that Korea and Japan are treating each other too emotionally. "Korea-Japan relations are too emotional," said Funabashi. "Korea is the only country that Japan treats so emotionally." And the two countries' media are heavily responsible for the emotionality of Korea-Japan ties. The Sankei Shimbun in Japan is actually selling its papers on Korea-bashing. Even the Yomiuri Shimbun is no exception. It often runs sensational reports on Korea. The situation is no different in Korea. Since Abe took power, the Korean media has been reporting Japan's shift to the right too often and with too much exaggeration. They prefer to use the term "king" to refer to the Japanese emperor.
After Abe pushed 11 security bills through the Lower House on July 17, protests against the hawkish move started the next day across Japan. They still continue. Leaflets bearing a slogan that reads, "Abe's politics, unforgivable," created by a poet and written in red letters, were placed in convenience stores nationwide. Former Japanese Prime Tomiichi Murayama and Professor Soeya both said Japan's parliamentary democracy had fallen into crisis - but that does not mean the Japanese people were turning right.
Korean TV dramas are still popular and Shin-Okubo - the Korean section of Shinjuku - is starting to revive from sales that were crushed by anti-Korea protests. The sentiment of Korea-bashing has dwindled. Although there are nationalists in Japan who complain that Abe is making too many concessions to China, they are not the majority, and they do not make such a comment about Korea. Let's not fan a dying fire.
Abe's statement will surely fall short of our expectations. If we react emotionally, we will face a long road to improving ties with Japan. It would be better for us to accept his statement if Abe decides to respect the overall aspects of past statements made by his predecessors. And we had better normalize relations in larger fields such as security cooperation, culture and economy. That would be a more realistic choice.
On his inauguration day in 1969 as chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt asked himself, "Do I feel history close?" He was borrowing a statement from Bismarck. Leading the country in the direction of history is a duty of a leader. To do so, a leader needs a vision to see history.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 31, Page 31