National interest first

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National interest first

It is regrettable that Seoul-Tokyo relations have rapidly frozen over the installation of a “comfort woman” statue in front of Japan’s consulate in Busan. Both South Korea and Japan are in a position to tackle tough external challenges from President-elect Donald J. Trump’s America First policies and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s growing security concerns in Northeast Asia, not to mention North Korea’s ever-persistent nuclear and missile threats.

Seoul and Tokyo engaging in a shameful diplomatic brawl under such circumstances — instead of cooperating with each other — raises sharp alarm bells over the future of the two countries’ ties.

First of all, we have to point out that both sides took a wrong direction over the statue of a former World War II sex slave. Busan’s Dong District Office cannot avoid criticism that it flip-flopped on the statue’s fate, even while it was well aware of what would happen if it confiscated the statue. A local civic group is calling for the statue, modeled after one in Seoul, to be installed outside the consulate in protest against Shinzo Abe’s hard-line stance toward Japan’s military past.

Nevertheless, the district office returned the statue to the advocacy group two days after public attacks. After the Abe government recalled its ambassador to Korea, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, too, ordered our ambassador in Japan to return. Both countries should be held accountable for the diplomatic tit-for-tat that has led to deeper conflict between Seoul and Tokyo.

The Japanese government should have reacted more prudently. In fact, a campaign to install the statue in Busan was led by a civic group, not the Korean government. Our authorities actually tried to block the group from setting it up but eventually had to yield to mounting public pressure. Without recognizing our government’s efforts, Tokyo took drastic action by recalling its ambassador, which has fueled ongoing friction between the two governments.

We must not forget that our government’s ultimate goal is to pursue national interest ahead of settling disputes over the past. To achieve that goal, our government needs to have a future-oriented attitude. That’s why our politicians — presidential hopefuls, in particular — should not take advantage of the conflict to win the next presidential election

Whenever such disputes have surfaced in the past, both countries’ political heavyweights have rolled up their sleeves to address them under the table. As local politicians with close ties to Japan increasingly disappear, it will be more difficult than ever to communicate with Japan. To make matters worse, President Park Geun-hye’s former chief of staff, Lee Byung-kee, and veteran Saenuri Party lawmaker Suh Chung-won are facing a political crisis after Park’s impeachment over the Choi Soon-sil scandal. Korea and Japan must reopen these communication channels as soon as possible.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 7, Page 26
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