History repeats itselfOn Dec. 30, 1997, Japanese Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi paid a courtesy visit to Korean President Kim Young-sam. Obuchi had previously threatened to repeal a fishing agreement between the two countries, but that day, he was visiting to offer $6.7 billion in assistance after Korea was hit by a foreign currency crisis. Two years earlier, President Kim had said he would give a Japanese politician a lesson for distorting history. But to Obuchi that day, he had to express gratitude for Japan’s help.
A month later, though, on Jan. 22, 1998, Japan unilaterally breached the fishing agreement. While President-elect Kim Dae-jung suggested negotiating with the new administration, Tokyo ignored him.
The controversial issues in the fishing agreement included how to define exclusive waters (where only one country’s fishing boats can operate) and where to draw the eastern border of the middle waters (where both countries can fish).
Japan stabbed Korea in the back when it was going through a currency crisis and leadership transition, and it made an absurd argument that it had no choice because Korea was not conceding and thought unilateral abrogation would help accelerate the negotiation.
Similar things are happening again in January 2017, 19 years later. Because of the “comfort woman” statue in Busan, Japan took hard-line steps such as the suspension of currency swap negotiations and shaking Korea as it faces a leadership vacuum.
Japan’s unilateral breach of the agreement 19 years ago was a violation that deserves criticism in the international community. But Korea did not respond properly.
The Kim Dae-jung administration was burdened from the beginning and had to rush the negotiation. While it was signed right before Kim’s first visit to Japan in October 1999, the rushed deal excluded a clause that would allow Korean fishing boats to use pair trails. So Korea’s foreign minister had to ask for a renegotiation. “We learned later that Japan meticulously planned for revision of the fishing agreement for two years since Kim Young-sam’s remark,” a foreign ministry official recalled. “Korea was at a disadvantage and had to make concessions and endure domestic criticism.”
This time should be different from 19 years ago. Korea-Japan relations should not be used for domestic politics, and emotional responses won’t help. Now that Park Geun-hye is suspended from presidential duties, political parties and presidential hopefuls should show a responsible attitude.
In the diplomatic stage with no enemy or friend, criticizing Japan for using Korea’s weakness is unavailing.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 11, Page 29
*The author is a political news writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.