South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's visit to Dokdo (Takeshima islets) and his subsequent remarks have thrown South Korea-Japan relations into chaos, and it will be difficult to restore them under his administration.
The visit was the result of a combination of three factors.
One is South Korea's dissatisfaction with Japan. It had grown not only over the "comfort women" issue but also over developments in Japan concerning the right to collective self-defense and nuclear capability. Concerns about the latter issue were heightened after the phrase "contributing to Japan's national security" was included in Japan's Atomic Energy Basic Law.
The second factor was that the Lee administration's foreign policy team failed to do its job.
The third is the fact that no South Korean can oppose a visit to Dokdo.
Lee likely had a political motive for his visit, wanting to make a historic achievement as president. But I do not think he would have turned it into action if the South Korea-Japan summit in December had produced positive results.
Some Japanese say Lee was trying to shore up his support rate, but that argument misses the mark. Lee knows that his approval ratings may rise temporarily but will not stay there for long.
An opinion poll showed that about 67 percent support Lee's visit to Dokdo, but it was less than 50 percent among progressives who are said to have strong nationalistic sentiments.
In the midst of an election season, South Koreans distrust the president more than they support his visit to Dokdo.
The South Korea-Japan relations were not going smoothly even before the latest confrontation. They had lost a sense of balance in all aspects.
For South Korea, Japan was an important partner in economic cooperation until the administration of Kim Young-sam.
The administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun believed Japanese funds were necessary in getting North Korea to open its doors. In Japan, Kim Dae-jung is seen as paving the way for a new era in South Korea-Japan ties, but his strategy was partly designed to advance relations with North Korea.
However, the Lee administration has done nothing but put pressure on North Korea, and Japan's strategic value has plunged because it also takes a hardline approach toward North Korea. China has instead become the country the Lee administration needs to win over to its side.
Japan is seeking an ordinary nation-to-nation relationship with a stronger South Korea. For its part, South Korea has lost interest in Japan, though South Koreans feel that Japan must take action over historical issues.
It is not that Japan has not made any effort regarding its past problems but rather that it has not made enough effort to explain it. South Korea, too, needs to acknowledge that some of Japan's efforts deserve appreciation.
Nevertheless, Japan must face up to reality and not hesitate to make some concessions if they are in the greater national interest.
South Korea has yet to seriously consider how it needs to deal with China. South Korea must work with Japan and the United States to embrace China into an international framework. It is no good if ties between South Korea and Japan remain off balance.
Candidates for the presidential election believe that Lee's words and actions have damaged friendly relations with Japan, although they cannot say that ahead of the vote. Whoever wins the election will start his or her administration under more difficult conditions than now.
South Korea and Japan both lack the ability to keep their relations from worsening. The two countries need to hasten to establish personal connections from a strategic viewpoint.
This article is based on an interview by Tetsuya Hakoda, chief of The Asahi Shimbun's Seoul Bureau.
* * *
Jin Chang-soo is vice president of the Sejong Institute and director of its Japan Center. He has advised the South Korean and Japanese governments on many occasions.
- « Prev
- Next »