The beginning of empathy?

by Brad Glosserman

HONOLULU — The strains in the Japan-South Korea relationship are far too deep-rooted for any single summit meeting to assuage. Rather, the objective of any summit should be setting the proper tone for bilateral relations. By this yardstick, the meeting Monday between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun should be considered a success.

The two men didn’t pretend that it was business as usual. They didn’t posture, but instead acknowledged the issues that divide their countries. Significantly, they demonstrated the mutual respect that is essential to progress in fixing their damaged relationship.

Plenty of incidents have inflamed relations between Japan and South Korea. A short list includes Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Education Ministry approval of a history textbook said to whitewash Japan’s occupation of Korea and other incidents, disputes over ownership of the Takeshima/Tok-do islets, and the statement by a Japanese diplomat that the United States does not trust Seoul with its intelligence.

Roh’s declaration of “diplomatic war” has fanned the flames. The result has been a downward spiral in relations and a sharp deterioration in South Koreans’ views of Japan: One survey in May found that 75 percent of the South Korean respondents did not have a favorable opinion of Japan.

What is remarkable is that only a few years ago bilateral relations were largely positive. Much of the credit for that goes to then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who in his 1998 summit with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi pledged to look forward in the relationship. The 2002 World Cup soccer final helped consolidate strong ties as the two countries worked together to realize a historic and successful tournament.

The speed with which this relationship has fallen apart is proof that the problems that bedevil relations are deeply entrenched. Political opportunism in Japan and South Korea accelerated the slide, but it did not cause the recent discontent.

On one level, the problem is history. The two countries have divergent interpretations of the first half of the 20th century. Failure to reconcile the two narratives guarantees tension, if not outright hostility, between them. History is part of the question of each country’s national identity in the 21st century. Both Japan and South Korea are in the midst of a national reassessment. Their societies are changing, and those changes are influenced by and reflected in their relationships with neighbors and partners.

The interpretation of history is an integral part of this process, but the real issue is how each country sees itself in the future. Each is rethinking its place in the region and the world. There will be tension within each society as contesting views of national identity battle for supremacy. Relations with neighbors and allies will be of secondary concern during this struggle.

It would be too much to expect Koizumi and Roh to fix the bilateral relationship in one two-hour meeting. By all accounts, however, the two men made a start. There were three highlights:

First, they didn’t pretend that relations were anything other than what they were. Unlike previous meetings — no necktie, resort-style summits — the two men met in coat and tie at the South Korean presidential palace. This was no casual, business as usual get-together.

Second, they did not evade the key issue: history. Reportedly, they spent all but 10 minutes of their meeting talking about this topic. Afterward, Roh could say it was an “honest and sincere discussion.” For his part, Koizumi said he “takes to heart” the feelings of the South Korean people. Still, as Roh noted after the meeting, good intentions are helpful, but they won’t guarantee peace. Concrete action is necessary. On this count the results of the summit itself were meager.

The two men agreed to a second round of joint history studies and to include the issue of history textbooks. The first round was launched in 2002 and ended earlier this year, but the textbook controversy was not specifically addressed. A mutually agreed version of history could help diminish the ill will that seems to dominate discussions of this topic.

A quicker payoff can be expected from the decision to double from four to eight the number of round-trip shuttle flights between Haneda airport and Seoul’s Kimpo airport starting Aug. 1. These flights make the two countries far more accessible to each other, facilitating travel and broad-based interaction. This contact provides a real basis for improved understanding between Japan and South Korea.

A third highlight of the meeting was Roh’s request that Japan build a new national war memorial so that future prime ministers wouldn’t have to visit Yasukuni Shrine to honor those who fell while fighting for Japan. Koizumi promised to consider the request “while taking public opinion in Japan into account.” If that is the prime minister’s benchmark, then this issue may be less of an obstacle than assumed. Surveys regularly show more Japanese oppose prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni than support them.

In fact, however, public opinion is no basis for decisions such as these. There are larger issues at stake. Koizumi has said his visits Yasukuni are intended to show that Japan must never wage war again. His statements in this, and other matters, are designed to show that Japan is ready to play a leading role in the region and in the world.

Yet, by visiting the shrine when he knows it upsets Japan’s neighbors, the prime minister incites the very passions that he acknowledges are so destructive and he demonstrates that his government is not yet ready to lead.

Understanding that — the significance of Japan’s relations with its neighbors — will provide the basis for improved Japan-South Korea relations, and for Japanese hopes to play a new role in the 21st century. Serious discussions such as those on Monday are a start — but only just.