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Troubled waters, bad bridge

A South Korean journalist in Seoul warns that Japan should not make light of the recent series of tough actions taken by Seoul against Tokyo because they represent the beginning of a sharp turn in South Korea’s policy toward Japan.

President Lee Myung Bak suddenly visited the disputed island of Takeshima (called Dokdo in South Korea) in the Sea of Japan, demanded that the Emperor of Japan “apologize” to the Koreans for what Japan did during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, and refused to receive a letter from Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda — all within the past few weeks.

South Korean presidents used to resort to actions designed to please South Korean citizens toward the end of their terms. In the case of Lee, he had no choice but to get tough with Japan because it is unlikely that he’ll be able to leave his name in the history books as a South Korean president who met with the top North Korean leader.

The South Korean journalist seems to believe, however, that the recent actions by Lee set new precedents.

Late in June, South Korea told Japan that it would withdraw its pledge to sign the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement on the very day that the signing was scheduled. The United States had expressed high hopes that Japan and South Korea would sign GSOMIA.

In early July, the South Korean government replaced two officials who had been in charge of the GSOMIA talks — Kim Tae Hyo, strategic planner at the Blue House or the presidential executive office, and Cho Sei Young, director general of the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry’s Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau.

Cho was succeeded by Park Joon Yong, said to be the first member of the ministry’s “China school” of bureaucrats to climb to that post, which had consistently been held by the members of the “Japan school” of bureaucrats.

On July 31, Park lodged a protest with the Japanese government for claiming Takeshima as “Japan’s inherent territory” in its annual White Paper on Defense.

A reporter for a major Japanese newspaper stationed in Seoul pointed out that the “China school” within the ministry has been on the rise at the expense of the “Japan school.”

An increasing number of young diplomats seek training in the Chinese language in China, while Japan and the Japanese language have become unpopular among young diplomats, he said, adding that the number of diplomats wanting to work at the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo fell short of the posts available.

In the past, South Koreans connected with Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus at Keio University, an expert on international relations on the Korean Peninsula, were in the front line of various negotiations with Japan. But it is said that the Keio connections have weakened.

A legislator with the ruling Saenuri (New Frontier) Party said Tokyo is mistaken if it thinks South Korea will continue to rely on Japan. This view is vindicated by China’s increasing importance as a South Korean trade partner. Trade with China now accounts for more than 20 percent of South Korea’s total trade — more than $200 billion in fiscal 2011, more than twice the value of trade between Japan and South Korea. This has brought a trade surplus of some ¥50 billion for South Korea.

Although the South Korean electronics industry still relies on Japan for the supply of critical components and machine tools, the Saenuri lawmaker said there is the opinion that the supply can be obtained through “our own technological innovation” and imports from Germany under the free trade agreement with the European Union.

He also said the confrontation with Japan will be a major issue ahead of the presidential in December. “Even if President Lee softens his attitude toward Japan, the public will not,” he said.

The ruling Saenuri Party has nominated Park Geun Hye as its candidate to succeed Lee. Her weak point, though, is that she is the daughter of former President Park Chung Hee, who graduated from the Japanese military academy when Korea was Japan’s colony and headed the military-led government.

Unless she takes a more confrontational stand against Japan than other candidates, she won’t win support from young, patriotic South Koreans.

Most Korean politicians who contributed to building a strong connection with Japan while President Park was in power are no longer active in politics. One former lawmaker who was close to President Park has complained that people now close to his daughter won’t allow him to meet her.

Thus the indications are that there is little possibility of Park Geun Hye, if elected president in December, suddenly reverting to the old way of maintaining friendly relations between South Korea and Japan.

A prominent Korean business leader, known for his knowledge of Japan, has blamed Japan for deteriorating relations. “We are not asking for more apologies,” he said. “Since the end of the war, Japan has made sporadic apologies, but it has consistently looked down on us.”

It would be a gross mistake to jump to the conclusion that the current bilateral relationship will prod South Korea to strengthen its ties with China and to launch a full-scale confrontation with Japan. But Japan must recognize that its relationship with South Korea is not what it used to be and there is no simple magic to mend it.

The South Korean journalist said, “Aside from the question of whether Japan will make more concessions, we must face the fact that the once-strong bridge between them is broken and there is a dire shortage of human resources (diplomacy, business, various exchanges, etc.) to rebuild it.”

In the Far East region, which includes such wily players as North Korea, China and Russia, no country will be inconvenienced by a further deterioration of Tokyo-Seoul relations.

And, according to a Japanese Foreign Ministry official, unless a truly extraordinary situation develops, the U.S. will not step into the territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea as a mediator.

Ever since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009, Japan’s diplomatic prowess has declined. At this point, it is unrealistic to think that Japan even has a plan to prevent South Korea from parting with it.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the September issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.