Lee comes to Tokyo seeking pragmatic ties

by Reiji Yoshida

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak arrived Sunday in Tokyo for a two-day visit, bringing with him hopes of launching a new bilateral relationship based on pragmatism rather than nationalistic and often conflicting sentiments between the two countries.

Lee’s trip marks the resumption of shuttle diplomacy involving mutual visits by the top Japanese and South Korean leaders, which had been suspended after relations soured over history-related issues under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Lee’s predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun.

Lee, a former business leader who took office in late February, has advocated a pragmatic approach to diplomacy and has said he will not seek an apology or soul-searching from Japan over its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula as his predecessor repeatedly did.

In line with Lee’s pledge to promote economic dialogue, a group of South Korean business leaders accompanying him will meet Monday with their Japanese counterparts and report to Lee and Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who has also advocated friendly diplomacy toward Asian neighbors.

“Frankly speaking, we wouldn’t have been able to plan such events in the past five years,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official in charge of Asian affairs.

Lee and Fukuda are scheduled to hold a meeting Monday.

Fukuda visited Seoul on Feb. 25 for Lee’s inauguration ceremony. The two leaders agreed at that time to resume the shuttle diplomacy, and Fukuda plans to pay a reciprocal visit to South Korea in the second half of this year.

After arriving at Haneda airport, Lee was greeted by more than 400 South Korean residents living in Japan during a large reception at a Tokyo hotel.

Koreans make up the largest ethnic group in Japan, and the 66-year-old president himself was born in Osaka. He moved to South Korea at age 3.

In a speech at the reception, Lee said he will urge Japan to enact legislation to give Korean residents of Japan voting rights in local elections.

He said South Korea should pursue a future-oriented relationship with Japan, although he added the past should never be forgotten.

Lee also said North Korea must give up its nuclear programs and weapons, saying this would accelerate the political process for unification of the two Koreas and also improve the North’s position in international society.

Many observers expect Lee to build a more “mature” relationship with Japan, seeking practical advantages.

“Yes, his diplomacy will be more pragmatic” than his predecessors, said Hajime Izumi, a noted Korea expert and professor of international relations at the University of Shizuoka.

But Izumi also pointed out that four of Lee’s predecessors — Roh, Kim Dae Jung, Kim Young Sam and Roh Tae Woo — ended up as lame ducks in the latter phase of their administrations and appealed to nationalist sentiments to boost their popularity.

Whether Lee can prove he is really different will be seen around 2010, when South Korea observes the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea and Lee enters the third year of his presidency, Izumi said.

“Right now he is only repairing (the political damage already incurred) in relations with the United States and Japan,” he said.

One possible touchstone for a new “pragmatic” diplomacy toward Japan will be whether Lee can or will push for a free-trade agreement, Izumi said, arguing that an FTA with Japan would benefit South Korea over the long run but might hurt his domestic support over the short term.