Improving our relations with Japan
The author is a former Ambassador to Canada.
In a recent survey on diplomatic challenges facing the Yoon Suk-yeol administration, improving relations with Japan came in last, in sixth place. The respondents expressed caution about China while still valuing trilateral security cooperation among South Korea, the United States and Japan (third place). Needless to say, checking China and seeking better tripartite security cooperation calls for improving Seoul’s relations with Tokyo.
And yet, South Koreans tend to make light of better relations with Japan due to their deep-rooted distrust of Japan followed by North Korea and China. In other words, Koreans turn away from the need for improved relations with Japan because of their hostilities toward Tokyo despite the need for cooperation with Japan for security, while entrusting the job of fostering trilateral cooperation to the U.S.
Amidst the tense strategic competition between America and China, pressure to choose between them grows. It is increasingly difficult for South Korea to weigh the losses from its choice, whatever it will be. Under such tough and volatile circumstances, it is advantageous for Seoul to join hands with Tokyo beyond its choice between Washington and Beijing. In this respect, the top diplomatic priority for the new South Korean government should be placed on improving relations with Japan.
The new South Korean government will have no trouble reinforcing the alliance with the U.S., which topped the list in the survey. Denuclearization of North Korea (second place) will bear no concrete fruit. But depending on the will of the conservative administration in South Korea, big progress can be made in relations with Japan. The stakes are too high for South Korea to leave them unattended or use them for political purposes domestically.
A balance of power in Northeast Asia is needed for South Korea to make strategic room to effectively respond to China’s rise. South Korea cannot rely on the U.S. for national security forever. The zeitgeist of America First is gaining traction in America whether it be governed by conservative or liberal administrations. If the U.S. chooses to dismantle one of its alliances based on its national interest, South Korea could be incorporated into the sphere of China.
But if South Korea and Japan cooperate closely, both countries can secure strategic autonomy elastic enough to endure the centripetal force of China. They can jointly cope with China’s pressure and share their burdens. That can help encourage America to stay in Northeast Asia and build more equal relations with South Korea and Japan. That will also help establish a foundation to effectively balance a security cooperation paradigm for South Korea, America and Japan and an economic cooperation apparatus for South Korea, China and Japan. That’s a step to strike a strategic balance rather than be swept up in the fierce contest between the U.S. and China.
Though South Korea and Japan compete on the economic front, they are complementary in many areas. If the two cooperate amidst the technological decoupling between the U.S. and China, it can help them stand pressure from Washington and Beijing or take advantage of their domestic markets. Technological cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo can help them jointly find external supply networks for their industries. If the two countries can push forward initiatives on the international stage, they will likely receive more support from the rest of the world.
Primary responsibility for improving bilateral relations falls on political leaders of the two countries. But politicians would hardly push for policies their voters do not want — particularly when the two countries are in dispute over historical issues.
The key to bettering Korea-Japan relations is held by the two countries’ people. Here, it is better for the victims’ side to extend its hand first. Given the remarkable achievements South Korea has made, the time has come for the country to address conflicts over history with pride and confidence.
What president Roh Moo-hyun said when he announced his administration’s reaction to Japan’s distortion of history in textbooks still reverberates. He wrote, “If we fuel our distrust and hatred [toward Japan], we cannot avoid another mishap. Even when we express such sentiments, we must not lose restraint. We must speak and act prudently.” If South Koreans can begin the journey with such a mindset, they can make their country greater.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.