[Column] Don’t miss the chance with Japan

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[Column] Don’t miss the chance with Japan

Nam Jeong-ho

The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

After the international community strengthened quarantine restrictions against travelers from China, Beijing on Jan. 10 stopped issuing short-term visas for only two countries — Korea and Japan — in retaliation. The ban was lifted for Japan on Jan. 29. At that time, I had an idea. What about Korea and Japan jointly responding to China? It may sound far-fetched, given the diplomatic stalemate over the wartime forced labor issue.

However, since the normalization of relations in 1965, the two countries have cooperated more than fought. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration said it would dismantle the UN Command, pushing Korea into a crisis. But at the 1973 UN General Assembly, Japan said a unilateral decision to dismantle the UN Command would threaten peace on the Korean Peninsula, nearly representing Korea’s position. When the two Koreas were engaged in a fierce diplomatic battle at the UN, Japan was a core supporter along with the U.S.

Tokyo also supported Seoul in the late 1970s when U.S. President Jimmy Carter argued for a complete withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). During his visit to Washington in 1977, Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda persuaded Carter to accept a reduction of U.S. forces in South Korea rather than a complete pullout. It is unclear how effective Japan’s role was at the time. But the UN Command remained intact and USFK was cut, not withdrawn.

That’s not all. After the U.S.-China détente, Japan was one of South Korea’s outposts for diplomacy with Communist countries. Tokyo allowed Seoul to use diplomatic missions of communist states in Japan as communication channels.

The two countries also maintained close security cooperation. As North Korean threats grew fiercer, President Park Chung Hee invited General Shigeto Nagano, the chief of staff of Japan’s army, and Defense Minister Ganri Yamashita to Seoul in 1979. They inspected military units and discussed bilateral military cooperation. Yamashita even received a medal from the Park government.

President Kim Dae-jung further advanced cooperation. During his term, Korea and Japan newly established a security policy consultation body and a military hotline. In 1998, the Korean Navy and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force started a joint Search and Rescue Exercise (Sarex). Despite countless conflicts, Japan helped Korea because it was beneficial to itself.

The two countries cooperated when necessary. But bilateral ties deteriorated because of politicians trying to take advantage of anti-Japan sentiments. President Lee Myung-bak, who visited Dokdo to improve his declining approval rating, and President Moon Jae-in, who broke the sex slave compensation deal struck under the previous administration, are not free from criticism that they ruined Korea-Japan relations. During the Moon presidency, in particular, the two countries stopped the Sarex in 2017, a joint exercise conducted no matter how bad their relations were. No wonder that Japan is still negative about Korea joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.

Many people consider Japan as a country that has gone past its prime, partly because Japanese products and culture are less competitive. And yet, Japan is a country that we still can learn from. Recently, Foreign Policy ran an opinion piece entitled “Why ‘Economic Security’ Became Magic Words in Japan.” The author stressed that the U.S. must learn from the Japanese government about industrial policy for decoupling with China. He wrote that the Japanese government is encouraging technology development and leading efforts to diversify export and import channels to change its economy heavily dependent on China. Isn’t this the knowhow Korea desperately needs now?

Nevertheless, some politicians are still abusing anti-Japan propaganda. Democratic Party (DP) Chair Lee Jae-myung criticized a proposed Korea-U.S.-Japan joint drill as “an extreme pro-Japanese act.”

I wonder how Lee would react to the cherishing of Korea-Japan military cooperation by President Kim Dae-jung, the spiritual leader of the DP? I am not saying we must forget about Japan’s wrongdoings. I am saying we must not abandon a precious opportunity to enhance our national interests by obsessing with the tainted past. If the two countries get closer, they also can work together to counter China bullying, which is destined to grow worse in the future. We must evaluate the Yoon administration’s efforts to improve Korea-Japan relations from this perspective.
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