Power play in the Far East


CHANGING POWER RELATIONS IN NORTHEAST ASIA: Implications for Relations Between Japan and South Korea. Edited by Marie Soderberg. Routledge, 2011, $125, 188 pp., (hardcover)

From mid-March until mid-April, South Korean charities raised over $52 million for earthquake relief in Japan, a record sum that speaks volumes about the reservoir of goodwill and generosity of the Korean people toward a nation that once colonized the peninsula. But donations plummeted from the beginning of April after Japan reasserted its claim to sovereignty over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands in new middle school textbooks approved at the end of March and in the Diplomatic Bluebook 2011 issued April 1 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This, in microcosm, is the nature of the roller-coaster relationship between these “frenemies.” And so the former comfort women resumed their daily protests outside the Japanese Embassy and the media furor revived a sense of betrayal rooted in sharp differences over shared history.

This multidisciplinary examination of the implications of the dramatic power shift in East Asia toward Beijing is timely and insightful. The 10 chapters help us understand the fractious nature of bilateral relations and how this affects relations with the U.S. and China. Until China’s economic takeoff, Cold War antagonisms and shared threat perceptions helped promote a degree of South Korea-Japan cooperation. But as Beijing has dialed down the ideological rhetoric and catapulted the economy into the world’s second largest, there is a perception in Japan that Seoul is tilting toward China at Tokyo’s expense.

Cheol Hee Park’s essay argues that history is not what it used to be and makes a convincing case that bilateral cooperation is underestimated and expanding. In his view, episodic conflict at the government level is not as disruptive as it seems and obscures growing grass-roots level coziness triggered by exchanges, tourism and popular culture. He also believes that hot economic relations will not lead Korea to drift toward Beijing on military and strategic issues. While both nations are pragmatically collaborating with China on a range of issues, he asserts that strategic concerns about Beijing encourage greater cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo.

Kan Kimura reminds us that historical disputes are not just about the facts, but also involve different perceptions about those facts and how best to handle the past in the present. His chapter also underscores the lingering attraction of selective and self-serving history.

T.J. Pempel’s gem elucidates the fault lines and developments in the post-Cold War trilateral relationship between the two Koreas and Japan. He stresses the importance of domestic politics in shaping diplomatic developments, treading into taboo territory in sketching how conservatives in Japan lead by Shinzo Abe have manipulated the suffering of abductees’ families for political gain.

They have also thus effectively capsized efforts to normalize ties with Pyongyang while contributing to the “super-sizing” of the North Korean threat. He argues that “until some degree of compatibility emerges among the domestic regimes in all three, the prospects for improved regional security conditions among them remain slim.”

With normalization held hostage by domestic politics in Japan, and the rise of hardliners in Seoul and Pyongyang, it is hard to imagine a breakthrough anytime soon.

Paul Midford takes on the concept of “democratic peace” — democracies do not go to war with each other. He does not find much evidence in support of democratic reassurance, arguing that Japan’s status as a democracy is offset by clumsy attempts by Japanese conservatives “to rehabilitate an authoritarian past,” helping explain why opinion polls show that South Koreans view Japan as a greater threat than authoritarian China.

Flare-ups over textbooks and territory fan public mistrust while “history-related confidence-destroying measures on the part of some Japanese politicians, if not the Japanese state itself, have conspired to encourage, if not push, South Korean administrations toward confrontation rather than cooperation with Tokyo.”

He quips, “Just as free competition in the market place for food does not ensure that people will eat nutritious food, so too consumer demands for self-serving and feel-good historical narratives may cause the market to supply these instead of ‘truth.’ “

But is the history market driven by consumers or producers? The Dr. Feelgoods of junk history seem canny at creating a niche by stoking demand through provocative marketing while seducing consumers with nationalist pablum.

Marie Soderberg masterfully sketches the historical context in her introduction and closes with a perceptive summary. She also contributes an intriguing chapter on the shifting politics within Japan’s Korean community. This is a highly recommended book for anyone with an interest in East Asian relations and how they are evolving.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.