Limits of hardball diplomacy

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Limits of hardball diplomacy


Kim Hyun-ki
The author is the editor of the international news desk at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine returns home on Nov. 26, three days after the Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) is set to lapse. If the agreement is not renewed, it ends automatically on Nov. 23. Diplomatic efforts continued behind the scenes to prevent the termination of the symbolically-important pact. Conditional maintenance or a temporary waiver on the expiration have been discussed in talks among officials of Korea, Japan and the United States. National Security Director Chung Eui-yong discreetly visited Tokyo twice lately. Even Samsung Electronics Vice Chair Lee Jae-yong sought a private-level breakthrough in his meeting with Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi two weeks ago in Tokyo. Officials from the U.S. State and Defense Departments are also using their influence to mediate. Although there are three days left, Seoul is expected to make the termination official after a National Security Council meeting on Thursday. All three governments are trotting out various ideas as if to excuse themselves for not doing more until the last minute.

If they had worked so hard before, such an awkward moment would have never arrived. Two leaders — President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — are most responsible.

In Osaka, Japan, a festival called Shitennoji Wasso is held early November. The main event is an elegant procession to reenact scenes of international exchange in ancient East Asia — dating back to the Baekje Dynasty and Joseon Dynasty. Over 1,000 people take part wearing colorful traditional clothing in a march through the streets of Hoenzaka. Wasso, or “I have come” in Korean, is shouted to honor the descendants from Korea who have influenced the Japanese culture. The tradition has been upheld for 30 years. Leaders from the two countries have sent congratulatory envoys and messages each year. Abe did not sent one last year — shortly after the first ruling from the Supreme Court in favor of Korean victims seeking damages for underpaid or unpaid labor during the colonial period — and has not sent one this year. He has made his feelings toward South Korea pretty clear in breaking the decades-old tradition between the two countries.

On Wednesday, Abe officially goes down in history as the longest-serving Japanese prime minister after having been in office for 2,886 days. He could also been the most narrow-minded leader in Japan. Yet he has survived long for several reasons.

His approval rating last week stood at 44 percent. A positive view on his decision to impose restrictions on certain exports bound for Korea reached 67 percent. The poll shows that the Japanese bear more negative sentiment towards Korea than their leader. The hostility has gradually built up from the series of incidents — the Korean government’s scrapping of the 2015 agreement on the comfort women issue, the 2018 rulings on wartime forced labor, the current diplomatic standoff, and Seoul’s announcement in August to exit Gsomia.

Yet the Korean government refuses to see its fault. Abe has no reason to reverse his decision on export curbs when it has the backing or tolerance from the people, media, and even the opposition parties in Japan. The United States also knows it. Yet only Seoul is not aware of that.


Moon has been equally rigid. His First Deputy National Security Director Kim Hyun-chong could be blamed for positioning Seoul hard-line against Tokyo. But the real problem has been President Moon. He has not separated the economy from foreign affairs. Korea actually had the moral upper hand when Japan slapped the trade barriers on Korea.

But Seoul lost it when it announced ending Gsomia. It gave Tokyo grounds to demand solutions to the standoff over the wartime labor issue from Seoul.

Moon has also misjudged Washington. Seoul may have bet on Washington’s mediation between its two Asian allies. But Seoul’s decision only pushed Washington further to Tokyo’s side. U.S. officials argued that the invalidation of a military information-sharing pact would only help North Korea and China, suggesting Seoul is on their side.

Whether it admits it or not, Seoul has been defeated in the first round of the diplomatic war with Tokyo. It more or less threw in the towel when Moon pulled Abe to his side for an 11-minute chat on the sidelines of the Asean Summit on Nov. 4 in Bangkok. South Korea was all confident at first, but now it seems to give into Tokyo no matter what. Hardball does not entirely work in diplomacy. Seoul must be better prepared and shrewd in the next round, or the price could be paid by the people and companies.
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