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Rules change, but Japan, S. Korea game the same

by Takashi Kitazume

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The rules of the game in political relations between Japan and South Korea changed in recent years as Tokyo began to pursue a “normal diplomacy” with Seoul, Kim Chang Kyoon, an editorial writer for The Chosun Ilbo, told the Feb. 9 symposium.

Kim said that the Japanese and South Korean governments previously treated their mutual ties as a “special relationship” in light of the bitter history of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea between 1910 and 1945.

While Seoul continues to see its relations with Tokyo as “special,” Japan under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi started to adopt normal diplomatic considerations in dealing with South Korea, he said.

“As a result, the two countries ended up playing the game under different rules,” Kim told the audience. “Therefore, they are unable to settle even minor problems.”

The atmosphere of Japan-South Korean relations had been improving after the two countries successfully co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup soccer, and as South Korean dramas and movies became immensely popular with Japanese audiences.

That changed in 2005 when a longstanding dispute over some South Korean-controlled rocky islets in the Sea of Japan — known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokto in South Korea — flared up over a move by Shimane Prefecture to create a local ordinance to designate a “Takeshima Day,” and a remark by the Japanese envoy to South Korea that the islets belong to Japan “historically and under international laws.”

Kim noted that the statement by then-Japanese Ambassador Toshiyuki Takano — although he was merely repeating his country’s official position on the issue — appeared to reflect a major change in Tokyo’s posture.

Previously, a Japanese envoy in Seoul used more “diplomatic” wording, such as “Japan’s position over the matter differs from South Korea’s,” he said. The Japanese government would always try to stop disputes arising from the private sector, he added.

However, Koizumi and members of his administration appeared to use straight talk on a variety of issues, including Takeshima, the Yasukuni Shrine and Japanese history textbooks, “and I felt that Japan-South Korean relations were entering a new phase,” Kim said.

Just as Japan’s ties with China suffered setbacks over Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni and other history-related issues, Takeshima and other disputes plunged Tokyo-Seoul ties to “the lowest level ever,” Kim said. The ratio of people who feel friendly toward Japan in a South Korean survey nosedived from 25 percent in 2004 to 12 percent in 2005, he added.

Kim noted that he believes that the South Korean government is also partly responsible for the recent strains in political relations with Japan. In setting its diplomatic policy toward Japan, government leaders have prioritized South Korean public sentiments — irrespective of whether the policies are realistic or whether they truly serve national interests, he said.

With the exit of older generation leaders with firsthand experience of the wartime past, Japan has embarked on a path toward becoming a “normal country,” Kim said. “So Japan and South Korea can no longer depend on the ‘special diplomacy’ that set bilateral ties for the past six decades.”

But it would be impossible to immediately create a “normal” relationship between the two countries, and they need to come up with a road map on how they should try to achieve that, he said.