[Column] The chemistry of the No. 4 and No. 8 batters

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[Column] The chemistry of the No. 4 and No. 8 batters

Kim Hyun-ki

The author is the Tokyo bureau chief and rotating correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Last April, President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol held a dinner meeting with a delegation returning from Japan led by special envoy Rep. Chung Jin-suk for an informal briefing. A round of poktanju, a boilermaker of soju and beer, was served. But the president turned away a bottle of Cheo-eum-cheo-reom — the popular soju brand of Lotte Chilsung, bearing a name logo in signature calligraphy of the late Prof. Shin Young-bok — who had been sentenced to life for spying for North Korea and pardoned in 1988. “I don’t drink such stuff,” said Yoon. (“Cheo-eum-cheo-reom” means “just like the first time” in Korean. Professor Shin didn’t abandon his socialist faith until his death in 2016.) The remarks from President Yoon left a deep impression on those attendees.

The topic came up among Korea’s corporate leaders during the president’s tour to the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland for the Davos meeting in January. A senior official said that he often is confounded by the way Yoon talks so frankly anywhere. Yoon indeed blurts out what he has in mind. Usually leading the dialogue, Yoon is the type who wishes to be the center of attention. He likes to be “the pitcher, cleanup hitter and the coach at the same time,” according to a person close to Yoon.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is the opposite. He boasts his strength is being a good listener. Kishida likes to drink as much as Yoon, but he concentrates on listening to what others say. In other words, he is someone who does not like to be the center of attention.
President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida before a brief meeting in New York after a plenary session at the United Nations, Sept. 22, 2022. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE]

Hiroshige Seko of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) compares Kishida to “No. 8 batter and second baseman.” Though not drawing keen attention from others, he respects teamwork and plays his role in the team quietly. Kishida indeed played the second baseman and No. 8 hitter during his high school days. His baseball peer Masahiro Sekine, current president of Shoko Chukin Bank, remembered him for endless practicing. “I have never seen him chill out,” said Sekine. While playing at the Summer High School Championship in Tokyo, Kishida, a sophomore at the time, erred big by failing to catch a ball which caused a defeat for his team. But none of his teammates blamed Kishida.

President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida could make a wonderful pair when the two leaders’ different leadership styles are combined. Insiders say the two hit it off when they meet in summit talks. In his first March 1 Liberation Day address, Yoon underscored Japan’s dramatic change from “an aggressor” to “a partner for cooperation.” The extreme opposites can sometime be the best mix. The dispute over the wartime forced labor issue could have worked out well.

But on the diplomatic stage, Seoul took the wrong step: it gave the upper hand to Japan. Even after walking out of the meeting room, a negotiator must not lose the hold. But after losing the leadership, Korea was put in a position to beg for a concession from Japan. When Foreign Minister Park Jin called for a “political resolve” from Tokyo last month, the office of Japanese prime minister only rebuffed the request. Tokyo maintains that it cannot go beyond offering to “respect” the joint declaration by President Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in 1998 to seek a new partnership in the 21st century.

Whether Yoon challenges Kishida with a fastball or curveball — or over a drink — Yoon must address the issue directly with his Japanese counterpart. Or he can just call it off. (He can say that he has done his best but since there is no meaning to continue this negotiation with Japan, the government will fully compensate the plaintiffs on its own.) In this case, the opposition in the legislature would have no cause to protest the decision. On future issues, Korea will certainly have moral advantage over Japan.

But Tokyo is not going to make things easy for Seoul. It demands a “satisfactory proposal for a summit from Korea” first. If Tokyo likes what it gets, Kishida would be willing to visit Seoul even this month, according to diplomatic sources.

In the tilted playing field in which the players are out of energy, only three options are left. One, you can walk out of it even if it means a disgraceful surrender. Two, you can boycott the game itself. Three, you can stick it out ‘till the end.

The call should be made by someone who wishes to be the pitcher, No. 4 hitter and coach.
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