Don’t ignore Japan
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Former Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, who served as Korea’s ambassador to Japan, sees through the psychology of Japan. He said Japan’s decision to collect short-term loans was a critical blow that forced Korea to receive a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) during the 1997 Asian economic crisis. “Financial markets of New York, London and Hong Kong used to believe Japan was the best defender of Korea,” Yu said. “After watching Japan’s decision, they rushed to take money out of Korea.”
The trigger of Japan’s decision were remarks by President Kim Young-sam on Nov. 14, 1995 in a press conference he had after a summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Asked what he thought about the Nanjing Massacre, Jiang replied that “I witnessed it personally during my childhood, but Japan insists it never happened.” Kim said, “Japanese politicians are making outrageous remarks one after another. I will teach them a lesson.”
“That remark triggered the result in which Korea had to receive the bailout from the IMF,” said Yu, who was at the press conference as the presidential secretary for foreign affairs at the time.
After the South Korean President Moon Jae-in shelved a comfort women deal struck by his predecessor and after the Korean Supreme Court ruled that a Japanese company is responsible to pay restitution to wartime forced laborers, Korea-Japan relations have tumbled. Japan argues that Korea has broken an international promise: the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and Korea.
Japan is an offender, but Korea created this absurd situation in which it becomes a victim. Many worry that Japan would inflict a fatal wound to Korea, just as it did during the 1997 crisis. Japan already stopped a bilateral currency swap in protest of Korean civic groups’ moves to build comfort women statues.
Shin Kak-soo, another former Korean ambassador to Japan, summarizes economic relations between the two countries as a “mutually dependent relationship in the global value chain and component supply network.” Huh Chang-soo, chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries, said, “The Korean economy enjoyed prosperity when Korea-Japan relations were good.”
Something, however, is wrong these days. “Some of Japan’s investments that should have come to Korea are now heading to China and Taiwan,” said Park Cheol-hee, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University.
In contrast, China and Japan are enjoying a honeymoon. China allowed Japan to send a destroyer carrying the Rising Sun — a symbol of Japanese imperialism — to a ceremony on Tuesday that marked the 70th anniversary of the foundation of China’s Navy. That signifies the improved relations between the two. Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Japan to attend a Group of 20 (G-20) summit scheduled to take place in Osaka on June 28. It will be the first visit by the Chinese president to Japan in eight years and seven months.
Shinzo Abe visited China for the first time in seven years as the Japanese prime minister last October. He was accompanied by a 500-member business delegation. Japan and China signed a 30-trillion-won ($26.3-billion) currency swap deal and agreed to 20 trillion won in economic cooperation projects. They also agreed to create a fund for economic cooperation and investment to enter other countries. Against the trade pressures of U.S. President Donald Trump, the world’s second and third largest economies agreed to cooperate closely.
Due to a trade war with the United States, China cannot obtain advanced technologies from the United States. Because of increased tariffs on Chinese products, China’s exports to the United States are suffering and its economic growth rate is slowing down. There are many reasons for China to befriend Japan. Therefore, radical remarks against Japan disappeared when China held a memorial to commemorate the Nanjing Massacre. The guests kept low profiles and state media did not broadcast the event live. It is keeping silent about the tragedy in its past for the sake of its future.
With an election scheduled in July, the situation is favorable for Abe. If Japan decides to turn completely toward China for the purposes of economic cooperation, it will be a disaster for Korea.
Japan is also good at pleasing the United States. Abe will fly to Washington this week and celebrate the 49th birthday of first lady Melania Trump. He will play golf with Trump. Trump will visit Japan in May to meet Crown Prince Naruhito after his elevation to emperor. He will visit Japan again in June to attend a G-20 summit.
There is no news about Trump’s visit to Korea, while Korea’s shuttle diplomacy with Japan for routine summits has been suspended for eight years since 2011. “When the two countries do not get along, the energies supposed to be spent on North Korea and China will be weakened,” a senior diplomat worried. It’s time for the Moon administration to become officially alarmed.
The 1998 joint declaration by President Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi is a great example of an apex in Korea-Japan relations. It is the first official agreement that contained Japan’s repentance and apology for the past. Korea also admitted Japan’s economic support for the country, such as financial aid, investments and technology transfers. They faced the past, but agreed to move toward the future.
Kim saw reconciliation with Japan as a starting point for inter-Korean exchanges and promoted a vision of an East Asian community. It was not about bilateral relations: It was about the big picture of dismantling the Cold War’s legacy in Northeast Asia. If the Moon administration, which promotes peace on the Korean Peninsula as its top priority, remembers this, it must not treat Japan lightly.
Kim’s strategy was a stark contrast to President Lee Myung-bak’s controversial visit to Dokdo in 2012 and his short-sighted remark that the Japanese emperor must apologize to Korea. It is no coincidence that Japanese companies’ investments in Korea dropped from $4.5 billion in 2012 to $2.6 billion the following year.
Why is the Moon administration doing nothing about the ruptured relations with Japan? The problem is that it’s trying to use nationalism and anti-Japan sentiment for domestic politics. No matter how much it dislikes Japan, it must get along with our neighbor to make Trump’s United States recognize Korea through Abe. That will help resolve economic and security risks and secure Korea’s role in North Korea affairs. The current situation is too dangerous. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, a veteran in Korea-Japan ties, must take the initiative: We look forward to Moon’s wise decision.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 22, Page 31