HONOLULU — The scheduled appearance of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chinese President Jiang Zemin alongside South Korean President Kim Dae Jung at the opening ceremonies of the 2002 World Cup in Seoul later this month symbolizes much more than mere cooperation on the field of athletic competition; it also underscores Seoul’s unique role as a bridge between Tokyo and Beijing and the importance the Kim regime has rightly placed in maintaining good relations with both its giant neighbors.

Closer cooperation among the three, who collectively form the Northeast Asian leg of the ASEAN Plus Three forum, serves the economic, political, and security interests of the broader Asia-Pacific region and of the United States as well. To his credit, building stronger relations with South Korea’s two giant neighbors, and with the U.S. and Russia as well, has been one of the primary foreign-policy goals of the Kim administration. One would assume that future South Korean leaders will see the wisdom in continuing this enlightened policy.

Shortly after coming to power, Kim outlined two major pillars of his administration’s foreign policy, above and beyond his “sunshine policy” of outreach toward North Korea: namely, to preserve and maintain alliance ties and close cooperation with the U.S. and to elicit positive cooperation with the four major powers — the U.S., Japan, China, and Russia. By his actions, it is clear that Kim subsequently added Europe to this mix, witness his hosting of the Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit and his encouragement of greater European involvement in Peninsula affairs.

The two goals — maintaining the U.S.-South Korea alliance and simultaneously enjoying good relations with all the major powers — are mutually supportive. The U.S.-South Korea alliance allows Seoul simultaneously to pursue close and cordial relations with all its neighbors (including North Korea). Without American security guarantees, Seoul’s options are limited. South Korea could attempt to go it alone, although neutrality has not proven to be a successful strategy in the past. Or it could choose to align with one of its other neighbors. Whichever one Seoul chooses — and China would be the most likely choice, since memories of Japan’s domination are freshest and Russia today has little to offer — historic rivalries and suspicions are almost certain to be revitalized, leading to greater regional instability.

Particularly unsettling would be a Sino-South Korean relationship that was perceived as anti-Japanese. It is an unfortunate fact that the people of South Korea retain a historical sense of distrust for their Japanese neighbors; a distrust shared, and all-too-frequently played upon, by the Chinese. If future Seoul-Beijing ties are built on this factor, however, this would put South Korea on a collision course with the U.S., whose national security strategy rests upon the foundation of close U.S.-Japan relations and greater Japanese participation in regional security affairs (within the framework of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty and Japan’s Peace Constitution).

This is why maintaining cooperative three-way South Korea-Japan-China ties serves all three nations’ and Washington’s interests as well, since all share a common goal of increased stability in the region, based on the recognition that such stability is a prerequisite for the accomplishment of another mutual goal; namely, greater economic prosperity — which remains the primary goal of ASEAN Plus Three as well.

While bringing the heads of state together for World Cup ceremonies and for ASEAN Plus Three summits and other gatherings are important manifestations of this three-way cooperation, each leg of the triangle must also be strengthened if trilateral cooperation is to be sustained over time.

The South Korean-Japan relationship remains the weakest link today. Cohosting the World Cup has served to bring the two sides closer together. But while cooperation between the two states has broadened in recent years, it remains only skin deep and subject to constant ups and downs. Koizumi’s recent visit to Yasukuni Shrine demonstrated how fragile the relationship remains, even though Koizumi attempted to conduct the visit in as low-key a manner as possible and used the occasion to condemn war and Japan’s history of aggression against its neighbors.

Ironically, while history and nationalism seem to trump the shared democratic and cultural values that should naturally tie Japan and South Korea together, they appear not to play a significant factor in Sino-South Korean relations. Japanese history books today acknowledge past atrocities but are still condemned for not going far enough or being sufficiently specific or repentant. Meanwhile, Chinese history books point to the U.S. (and South Korea) as the aggressors during the Korean War, with Chinese People’s Liberation Army “volunteers” playing the role as “liberators” of the Peninsula. While China’s important role as an honest broker between North and South Korea seems to have gained it more tolerant treatment, at some point history issues will need to be redressed if long-term cooperation is to be assured between Beijing and Seoul, especially after reunification.

Sino-Japanese relations also have experienced significant mood swings in recent years, with Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits again causing deep strains. Both sides seem determined to get beyond these tensions to foster a more cooperative relationship essential both for Japan’s economic recovery and for China’s continued economic progress. By bringing the leaders of Japan and China to Seoul for the opening ceremonies, Kim will be helping to foster a spirit of increased cooperation, especially if he sets an example for both leaders by renewing his pledge to set history behind in order to usher in a new era of trilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia.

Once the World Cup games end, the serious game of presidential politics will begin in earnest on the Korean Peninsula. All the candidates should learn from the example being set at the opening ceremonies and pledge themselves to a nonpartisan foreign policy approach that emulates the policies of Kim (and his predecessors); one that focuses on closer trilateral and broader simultaneous cooperation between South Korea and all the major powers under the continued security umbrella provided by the U.S.-South Korean alliance relationship.

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