Put down the flag of ideology
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The first critical moment of rupture in Korea-Japan relations passed narrowly. President Moon Jae-in sent a congratulatory message to newly enthroned Japanese Emperor Naruhito on May 1 and a message of gratitude to abdicating Emperor Akihito. According to the custom since the Kim Dae-jung administration in 1998, the Japanese king was referred to as “emperor” as a courtesy. With that, Korea avoided insulting Japan, which was ending 31 years of Heisei and starting the era of Reiwa.
It is a basic courtesy to send such messages to an ally. But it was not an easy decision. Despite the Foreign Ministry’s proposal to do so, the Blue House was reluctant to make the decision. The diplomatic rupture resulted in multiple injuries to Korea-Japan relations that have arguably worsened over the comfort women agreement and the Constitutional Court’s ruling on forced labor. Here, four-term lawmaker Kim Jin-pyo of the ruling Democratic Party came forward to persuade President Moon Jae-in’s chief of staff, Noh Young-min, National Security Adviser Chung Ui-young and Secretary for Political Affairs Kang Ki-jung to accept the Foreign Ministry’s suggestion.
Empowered by the Supreme Court’s ruling in October 2018 ordering compensation by Japanese companies to Koreans forced to work during World War II, victims of forced labor began attaching their assets in Korea on May 1, the first day of the new Reiwa era. Japan had already warned of all-out retaliation for such a move. What would have happened if President Moon did not send a congratulatory message to the Japanese emperor? Japan would surely consider it an insult on its festive day.
The congratulatory message and letter from Moon were delivered to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in advance. Along with other senior members of the National Assembly, Rep. Kim is going to Japan to discuss restoration of the bilateral relationship with Japanese lawmakers close to Abe.
Kim, who served as deputy prime minister for the economy and deputy prime minister for education, had played a leading role in the transitions of former President Roh Moo-hyun and President Moon. He is different from mainstream Democratic Party factions of the pro-Roh, pro-Moon activist groups. As his conservative perspective was considered unfit for the liberal identity of the party, he even lost the race for party head. But he continued to propose realistic solutions for the economy, foreign policy and security that the Moon administration lacks.
Yet the problem isn’t over. Japan considers the Korean government’s negligence of the situation after the court ruling a denial of the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea. Tokyo claims that the Korea-Japan treaty completely and finally resolved all personal claims. To facilitate a Korea-Japan summit on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka on June 28, the Korean government needs to come up with a solution to the forced labor case.
Seoul’s position is to respect the judgment of the judiciary. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon has remained silent for six months. Abe wants to win the Upper House election in July and modify the current Pacifist Constitution. If we remain idle, Abe will turn away from a summit to take advantage of the Korea-Japan discord for the election as he advocates a rightist swing and constitutional revisions.
The bilateral relationship is already damaged. Economic exchanges are severed, and sales of Korean products in Japan were hurt. LS Cable and System’s President Myung No-hyun said that Korean companies are cooperating with Japan with original technology. He claimed that an executive of a Japanese high-tech materials company — which has been trading with his company for nearly 20 years — told him that he would want to lower the price of the production materials but young workers are reluctant to help because of the aggravated Korea-Japan ties.
At this rate, security will also be hit directly. There are seven bases under the United Nations Command in Japan. In case of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. military will be sent to Korea from the continental United States via Japan. Deployment and supply of equipment will also be made through Japan. Korea and Japan are substantial allies with the United States. But atmosphere in Japan is unusual. The April issue of Bungeishunju — a monthly magazine read by Japanese intellectuals — ran a special report titled “Simulation of Complete Break of Korea-Japan relations.” The Korea-U.S.-Japan axis is at risk when the three countries need to unite against North Korea’s nuclear program.
To get along with Japan, Korea needs to be close to Trump, who wields influence with Abe. Yet Korea’s channel with the United States is blocked, and Abe is close to Trump. Trump will judge Korea-Japan relations through Abe. It is a disadvantageous structure for Korea.
I cannot see the foundation of cooperation in the economy and security between Korea and Japan crumbling forever. It would be a loss for Japan, but fatal for Korea. The forced labor issue is the straw that will break camel’s back. It is irresponsible for the government to neglect the relations for six months. I hope the Moon administration would seriously consider a proposal by former ambassador to Russia Wi Sung-lac to form a presidential committee comprised of over 10 civilians recommended by each faction of the ruling party to find a solution to help relieve the president of his burden.
The diplomatic discord must be stopped. To extinguish the fire, the government must put down the flag of ideology and have a sense of realism instead.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 6, Page 27