[Column] Practical diplomacy is the answer

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[Column] Practical diplomacy is the answer

Lee Hyuk

The author is a former ambassador to Vietnam.

South Korea’s per capita GDP was estimated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at $33,592 — just a tad short of Japan’s $34,358 — last year. Korean brands have long been favored over Japanese ones in TVs and white goods. Korean companies have become an equal or superior to Japanese makers of cars, steel and vessels.

In 1985, five out of the world’s top 10 chipmakers were Japanese names. Now, there are none in the top 10, whereas Samsung Electronics and SK hynix of Korea are on it. J-pop is no longer a match for K-pop on the global stage, as well as in films and dramas in the cultural field.

Japan remained focused on manufacturing and did not quickly pivot towards the economy of digital and advanced technologies. Wages have stayed stagnant due to low profitability to keep inflation low and undermine the living quality for the Japanese.

But the outlook for this year has changed. IMF estimates global growth of 2.8 percent and gains of 1.8 percent for Japan and 1.7 percent for Korea. Under the forecast, Korea would fall behind Japan in growth for the first time since 1999.

Unsettled by Korea’s rise, the Japanese government has stepped in. It is subsidizing $3.5 billion, or about a half the cost, for an advanced logic chip plant the world’s biggest foundry TSMC is building in Kumamoto in consortium with Sony and Denso to bolster chip capacity in the country. The government has backed chip consortium Rapidus established by eight companies, including Sony, Toyota Motor, and NTT. It has offered incentives to a variety of fields, including tourism, agriculture and fisheries, to stimulate their competitiveness.

Korea is smaller in population and lacks resources compared to Japan. It remains technically at war with nuclear-armed North Korea and cannot join the leading group due to geopolitical constraints. Korea can lose everything if its economy gives ground. In that case, living standards and the security environment also will deteriorate. Its rank in the global society would crumble as a result. The market economy and democracy also could be shaken.

The intensifying hegemonic contest between the United States and China has brought about rapid changes on the economic and security fronts, demanding a fundamental change in our mindset and strategy.
Korean diplomacy is faced with a grim reality that calls for putting top priority on pragmatism for its national stability and progress. Politicians must refrain from politicizing diplomatic issues, and division in public opinion must be addressed to enable more practicality in diplomacy.

As a result of the populist choice of Brexit through the referendum in 2016, the United Kingdom is expected to log a negative growth of 0.6 percent this year, the only economy to recede among G7 this year, according to the IMF. At the current rate, a British household could become poorer than a family in Slovenia by 2024.

Despite restrictions in political freedom, Singapore which places high priority in promoting profit, boasts its per capita GDP to $79,426 as of last year, double Korea’s.

In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo in September last year, novelist Kim Hoon while speaking on his book on Adm. Yi Sun-sin based on his diaries, he pointed out that Yi was able to dissuade soldiers from fleeing from the reality of confronting hundreds of Japanese warships with just a fleet of 12. A strong leadership, Kim said, comes from the ability to usher people into a difficult path, and not the easy and popular one.

The two governments are finally moving beyond the impasse over the compensation of wartime forced labor after the Korean Supreme Court in 2018 favored the damage claims by Korean victims. The Korea-Japan relationship is the most divisive issue in diplomacy. Because past issues remain and affect public sentiment, the government must have had a strong determination to break the deadlock with Japan.

As Japan remains steadfast on the legal interpretation of the wartime reparations — as it claims it had covered all the damages from illegal occupation through grants and loans in 1965 — the government can never solve the problem if it gives in entirely to public opinion against Japan. The response over the proposal for the settlement through a Korea-led fund would differ among the people involved. The affair had weighed over not just ties but overall foreign policy too long.

According to the Federation of Korean Industries, trade between Korea and Japan fell about 10 percent, or 20 trillion won ($15.2 billion), as a result of worsened ties since the Supreme Court ruling five years ago. Seoul was restrained in seeking a strategic partnership with Tokyo and lost strong leverage in its relations with China. The issue also constrained the tripartite security alliance with the U.S. and Japan. Korea has been restricted in exploring a meaningful role in the India-Pacific region.

Bilateral ties are headed to a future based on cooperation and competition. As a diplomat who had long been involved in bilateral relations, I hope the government uses the momentum of the settlement to renew its resolve to overtake Japan in future competition. Rage and bitterness cannot help beat Japan. Such a mindset only helps fixate a poor bilateral relationship and impede practical diplomacy for national interests.

Korea must widen the horizon of cooperation with Japan to surpass it. The individual income gap last year has become almost the same. We cannot stop here. Our diplomatic capabilities must concentrate on making Korea better and stronger to contribute to global peace and prosperity. We must move towards a prouder — and more promising — future.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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