South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun’s March 23 statement denouncing Japan for its colonial past is bound to seriously damage Tokyo-Seoul relations that have been improving in recent years. The statement reverses positive diplomacy Seoul has pursued on the basis of a 2003 agreement between Roh and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to deepen bilateral relations.

The confrontation over historical perceptions was triggered by the Shimane Prefectural Assembly’s approval March 16 of an ordinance declaring “Takeshima Day” — to underscore Japan’s claim to a group of islets also claimed by South Korea in the Sea of Japan.

Additional issues are Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine and passages in new history textbooks scheduled for use in middle schools.

South Korea’s new diplomatic stance could affect the Asian situation in general, including the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear-arms development and the proposed East Asian Community.

In his recent statement to the South Korean public, Roh said:

Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits damage the truth of the apologies made by past Japanese leaders.

The ordinance on “Takeshima Day” and the new history textbooks reflect attempts to justify Japan’s past aggression.

The Japanese government itself aids and abets these actions. South Korea, therefore, can no longer overlook Japan’s intention to push hegemonism.

In a March 1 speech marking the anniversary of an independence movement during Japan’s colonial rule (1910-1945) of the Korean Peninsula, Roh urged Japan to offer an apology and pay compensation for its colonial actions.

The compensation issue, however, was settled during bilateral negotiations held 40 years ago to normalize diplomatic ties. In 1995 Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a statement expressing Japan’s “serious regret” for its colonial rule and offered a “heartfelt apology.”

While visiting Tokyo in 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi signed a joint declaration on a “new Japan-South Korean partnership toward the 21st century” to settle once and for all the pending bilateral problems and end the disputes over historical issues. Roh’s statement thus ignores diplomatic efforts of the past decade by leaders of both countries.

On March 17 the South Korean government issued a set of policy guidelines concerning diplomacy with Japan, urging Tokyo to investigate the truth, express regret and offer apologies on historical issues.

In a news conference following his 2004 talks with Koizumi, Roh promised not to officially raise issues about perceptions of history while in office. Seoul’s new policy guidelines reverse that stance.

There is widespread speculation that Roh issued his statement to boost slumping support for his government, taking advantage of strong anti-Japan sentiment among the South Korean public. Following the speech, Roh’s ratings reportedly rose 10 percent. Still, his tactic is a dangerous diplomatic gamble.

Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura issued a statement challenging South Korea on its new policy guidelines. He said it was not wise to reverse the course of smooth diplomatic relations that the two countries had cultivated. Koizumi added that Tokyo and Seoul should push efforts to transcend the discord.

However, in a move apparently intended to appeal to anti-Japanese public sentiment, the South Korean government recently lifted restrictions and allowed tourists to visit Takeshima. This is bound to infuriate the Japanese.

Japanese have increased their feelings of affinity toward South Koreans since the two nations cohosted World Cup soccer in the summer of 2002 and as a result of the popularity of South Korean television dramas in Japan. In a poll conducted by the Cabinet Office last October, a record 56 percent of the respondents said they had a friendly attitude toward South Korea. From 1978 to 1998, the number of respondents who did not have feeling of affinity toward South Korea had consistently exceeded the number of those who did — except in 1988 when Seoul hosted the Olympics.

In 1999, the trend was reversed, probably because of the detente established by President Kim Dae Jung’s visit to Tokyo the previous year.

Aside from surveys on affinity, annual survey results on the state of bilateral relations have alternated between “good” and “bad” every three or four years. This reflects unstable Tokyo-Seoul relations that are affected by public sentiment following developments concerning historical perceptions.

Meanwhile, Seoul’s relations with Washington, its most important ally, are seriously strained. In a speech at a Los Angeles think tank during a visit to the United States last November, Roh said that a tough U.S. policy stance against North Korea would have “grave repercussions” on the Korean Peninsula, throwing cold water on the aims of the second administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

The Bush administration, attaching importance to the strategic flexibility of U.S. forces overseas, is reorganizing the global U.S. military presence, including that in South Korea, while the Roh administration seeks to establish its own national defense strategies. Pundits say strains in Seoul-Washington relations put the credibility of the U.S.-South Korea alliance in serious doubt.

North Korea is continuing to push nuclear-arms development while refusing to take part in the six-party talks on the issue. North Korea will benefit from the mutual distrust brewing among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea.

This fall, at the first summit on the proposed East Asian Community — an important development for the 21st century — the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China and South Korea are to play a central role. Discord between Tokyo and Seoul could allow Beijing to take the initiative.

If nations push diplomacy based solely on domestic political considerations, they run the risk of being unable to control the adverse effects on international relations.

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