Missing a golden chance
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in has decided not to attend the Tokyo Olympics. A summit, even if it was held, wouldn’t accomplish much, and a recent inappropriate comment from a Japanese diplomat based in Seoul played a part in his decision.
In a broader perspective, however, it is desirable for the president to visit Japan for a grand cause. Most of all, it is not right to mix politics with sports. Shortly before the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Moon declared that Korea would show the rest of the world how sports can transcend politics and ideology. If he does not go to Tokyo because of the low expectations for any summit, he won’t be free from criticism of having a double standard.
Moreover, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Korea when Korea-Japan relations were turbulent over the breaking of the comfort women deal. Abe defied domestic criticism. So, if Moon doesn’t go to Tokyo, he will be considered petty.
Moon’s strategy to solve all the challenges through a summit neglects the essence of diplomacy. Such an approach may have worked with former U.S. President Donald Trump, who improvises and likes a one-man show, but it won’t work with current Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Agreements in a summit can come from months of behind-the-scenes deals. Moreover, as Suga is known for prudence, he never makes impromptu decisions. So, suddenly telling him to concede on at least one of three thorny issues — export restrictions, nuclear pollutant release, and wartime forced labor and comfort women — in return for a trip would never have happened.
Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam formulated the two-sided game theory that diplomacy is both a “negotiation between countries” and “domestic politics.” He argued that for an inter-state meeting to succeed, national interests gained from the negotiation should be greater than concessions. Otherwise, the negotiation can’t succeed. The problem is that a negotiation with conviction is impossible because representatives of each country are swayed by pressure from domestic political and interest groups. Interestingly, each country tries to reduce what they can concede with an excuse of external pressure or other restrictions. For instance, when negotiating with the United States on opening agricultural market, a government can claim that it can never open the rice market due to farmers’ opposition.
Likewise, the Moon administration underscores it cannot concede on the wartime forced labor issue, citing a ruling by the Supreme Court. In 2018, Moon stressed that the government had to respect the ruling because the separation of the three branches is as important in Korea as it is in Japan. Since Moon voluntarily reduced the room for flexibility, there was no way for him to negotiate with Japan.
French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir shared ten ways to age well. The ninth is to retreat constructively and the tenth is to hand things over to the next generation. With his exit approaching, Moon shouldn’t feel pressured to show something, especially in the diplomatic area. Beauvoir advised that an incomplete job doesn’t mean failure, as one’s successors will wrap things up. Whether the next administration is liberal or conservative, it will be meaningful if Moon establishes a base to improve Korea-Japan relations.