The cohosting of the World Cup that began Friday is a great occasion for fostering peace and reconciliation not merely between South Korea and Japan but also throughout the world. Although the World Cup is mainly a sporting event that takes place every four years, the current contest portends special significance as it is being held in Asia for the first time — and on the divided Korean Peninsula.
As the world’s eyes focus on South Korea and Japan, this global event can deliver a powerful message for peace and understanding. It will provide an excellent opportunity to showcase the two countries’ ways of life and cultures to the world, especially to Europeans, who seem to be among the most passionate soccer fans.
A successful staging of this cohosted event will build a positive atmosphere for peace and stability by shifting people’s attention away from imminent dangers of war and terrorism around the world. It is true that national passions do flare up in soccer games, yet sports still remain the most effective means of overcoming conflicts as well as political, religious and racial differences.
From a South Korean point of view, the decision by the FIFA, the soccer-governing body, to let South Korea cohost the World Cup was a diplomatic breakthrough that has enhanced the country’s prestige. The successful undertaking of the Seoul Olympics in 1988 greatly contributed to South Korea’s political stability and economic development. In hindsight it can be said that these games, which the Soviet Union and China participated in, contributed to ending the Cold War in 1989.
Chung Ju Young, founder of the Hyundai group, took personal leadership in obtaining the right to hold the Olympics in Seoul. Another tribute must be given to the Chung family because one of his sons, Chung Mong Joon, played a crucial role in inviting and cohosting the World Cup as a vice president of FIFA.
Even though North Korea declined to share in hosting the games, there is little doubt that cohosting the World Cup in South Korea will enhance the prospect for peace and stability not only on the peninsula but also throughout East Asia.
It is important to note that this is the first joint endeavor that South Korea and Japan have undertaken in the 21st century. That these two erstwhile protagonists are doing so is a success story in itself as the event can only shorten the political distance between the two neighbors.
Korea and Japan are often said to be “near and far” from each other. It only takes about two hours to fly from Tokyo to Seoul. Psychologically, though, they remain far apart because of their unfortunate historical experiences.
The World Cup can help transform this ambivalent relationship into one of “near and near” countries sharing a common destiny. Private citizens can freely change their residences from one place to another, but nation states cannot move their locations even in this age of globalization. Geography compels South Korea and Japan to live together and cooperate in pursing their common interests and values.
Despite their historical differences, South Korea and Japan share common security, economic and political interests. No less important is the reality that as the most dynamic democracies in Asia, they also share such universal values as liberty and human rights. They should make every effort to share history as well.
As a consequence of the World Cup, the degree of interdependence shared by the two countries will deepen. Now that Seoul and Tokyo have signed an investment agreement, it should become more feasible for the two countries to negotiate another free-trade agreement, since their market economies are among the most open in Asia.
The spirit of cohosting the World Cup must be implemented in instituting a truly future-oriented relationship between South Korea and Japan. The spirit of reconciliation in this sporting event must be expanded to cultural and intellectual exchanges.
It is a good omen that many Japanese, young people in particular, are increasingly appreciative of Korean food, movies, music and fashions. In a similar vein, more and more South Korean youths are enjoying Japanese games, comics and music even though the bulk of Japanese “mass culture” is still officially banned in South Korea.
After the World Cup is over, the two countries cannot help but drastically expand these exchanges — to their mutual benefit — for attempts to control them will be ineffective in an age when young people in both countries can easily log onto the Internet and get what they want from each other. One hopes that a new era of Korean-Japanese cooperation will follow.
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