Masatoshi Muto, Japan’s ambassador to South Korea when bilateral tensions spiked over the Takeshima territorial dispute this summer, is calling for a “mature relationship between adults” in which bilateral cooperation can be advanced where possible.
To help improve the frayed ties between the two countries, the former ambassador said in a recent interview that South Koreans should be better informed of the cooperation Japan has extended to it since the 1965 normalization of diplomatic relations.
Relations worsened sharply following South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s trip in August to the pair of islets in the Sea of Japan controlled by South Korea and claimed by Japan, the first such visit by a South Korean leader.
“Even if there is an issue that cannot be resolved immediately, we need to set up a place where we can consult in an objective and calm manner,” said Muto, 63, who was briefly recalled over the trip. “By having the top officials of the two countries talk with each other, we must build a mature relationship between adults where cooperation can be advanced where possible, such as in the economic and security fields.”
Muto, a career diplomat, assumed his duties in August 2010 and served as ambassador to Seoul until early November.
He said the dispute over the islands, called Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, is regarded in South Korea as both a territorial and a historical issue.
Japan incorporated the islets into its territory in 1905 as part of Shimane Prefecture. The same year Japan deprived Korea of its diplomatic rights and turned it into a protectorate.
“Having also been (under colonial rule),” said Muto, “the South Koreans have a strong feeling that they should never allow Japan to rob South Korea of its territory.”
Lee’s unprecedented visit to the disputed islets drew sharp reactions from Japan, which then threatened to unilaterally take the dispute to the International Court of Justice for resolution.
Muto says the Japanese reactions and the subsequent international spotlight on the dispute have given rise to a slight change in South Korea’s public opinions.
“A tiny part of the South Korean population has begun feeling that South Korea’s position is not fully accepted internationally,” he said, adding it is important for Tokyo to strive to explain its positions.
Looking ahead, Muto said it is important for South Koreans to be informed of not just the history of enmity between the two countries but also of cooperation.
“Japan cooperated sincerely as South Korea went through its development process,” he said. “If more people in South Korea get to know and understand it, they might be able to see the bilateral relations in a more objective manner and organize their feelings about Japan.”