A shining moment with Japan

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A shining moment with Japan

 Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


The late President Roh Tae-woo was not free from wrongdoings, starting with the military coup on Dec. 12, 1979, but a reevaluation of his accomplishments as president is necessary. The most important accomplishment of all was his Northern Policy. There is no more need to talk about that. What I want to stress is that he also made a great accomplishment in diplomacy toward Japan in addition to the Northern Policy.

“Let us create an era in which youngsters of Japan will depart from Tokyo and cross an undersea tunnel to join their friends in Seoul and travel to Beijing, Moscow, Paris and London for a friendship trip that links continents and unites the world,” Roh said in a speech before the Japanese Diet on May 25, 1990. It was the first speech by a Korean president before Japanese lawmakers. The vision was announced 10 years before President Kim Dae-jung’s “Iron Silk Road” and 30 years before President Moon Jae-in’s East Asia Railroad Community initiative.

That shows Roh had a grand strategy in his head and harmoniously implemented his Northern Policy and diplomacy toward Japan. I was told that many Japanese people were astonished by Roh’s blueprint and showed support. Of all modern Korean and Japanese leaders, who could possibly have talked about a vision to build a Korea-Japan undersea tunnel at a legislature of the other country? It shows that we are living in a time that is less progressive than Roh’s era 31 years ago.

Roh was the first politician who used the term “future-oriented,” which he introduced on a trip to Japan in 1990. Although the term is a diplomatic cliché today, the people who heard the term over three decades ago must have felt something fresh about it. In his speech at a palace dinner in Tokyo, Roh resurrected the long forgotten philosophy of Amenomori Hoshu, who had believed in good faith as the guiding principle of foreign relations.

But Roh did not mean to turn a blind eye to the past. As it stands today, future-oriented relations are conditioned to Japan’s sincere reflection and apology for past aggressions and Korea’s acceptance of that. During Roh’s visit to Japan, Emperor Akihito expressed his “deepest regret” for the sufferings Japan caused. Although it was never realized, Seoul and Tokyo had discussed the emperor’s possible visit Korea, as revealed by diplomatic records. During Roh’s presidency, serious diplomacy took place between the two countries to overcome their pasts and build a new relationship.

During Roh’s presidency, therefore, Korea-Japan relations were smooth. The Japanese government scrapped a system of taking fingerprint records from Korean residents in Japan to show its consideration for Korea. Economic cooperation and cultural exchanges expanded based on the amicable mood. After his inauguration in 1992, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa chose Korea as the destination for his first overseas trip. Such a decision is hard to imagine in the current circumstances.

At the National Assembly in Korea, Miyazawa offered regret and an apology for the sex slave issue. The joint declaration issued by President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in 1998 is often seen as a milestone in Korea-Japan relations, but the seeds were sown during the Roh administration.

History sometimes regresses, but it eventually moves forward, or so we like to think. That principle may not be applied to the Korea-Japan relations over the past 30 years. All leaders of the two countries since Roh’s presidency stressed the importance of future-oriented relations, but didn’t do much to accomplish anything, and the result is what we are seeing today.

Roh’s era was a period of a great transition, where the end of the Cold War abroad and an outburst of the democratization movement at home took place at the same time. As we actively overcame the turmoil, Korea was able to become an advanced country. We may be standing in another grand transition period now. Although the time demands a leader with vision and strategy to ride yet another turbulent wave, it is hard to find one in our brutal reality of 2021.
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