INTERVIEW: Osaka's popular Korean commentator calls for openness on Takeshima

September 19, 2012

By HIROSHI MATSUBARA/ AJW Staff Writer

KOBE--Defending the Korean side in local TV debate programs in Osaka, which feature unusually blunt and aggressive exchange of opinions, is a formidable and thankless task, fraught with peril.

But Park Il has taken on this challenge and won the hearts of viewers with his brand of Kansai humor and unflagging hope at bridging the wide gap between the two countries.

The 56-year-old professor of economics at Osaka City University is the most sought-after Korean commentator in Japan’s second-largest metropolis. He displays his expertise on numerous local TV and radio programs in a variety of subjects ranging from the history of Japan-Korea diplomacy to popular music.

Currently, amid heightening diplomatic tensions between Tokyo and Seoul over the territorial dispute involving the Takeshima islets, Park, a third-generation Korean resident in Japan, calls for Japanese to understand the “paradox” of the current Japan-Korea relationship.

In a recent interview with AJW, Park said it is the democratic development of South Korea, the very factor that has contributed to the current commercial and cultural exchanges between the two countries, which is making Koreans take an increasingly hard-line stance toward Japan.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

* * *

Question: Why do you call the Takeshima dispute “paradoxical”?

Park Il: The basic condition on the treatment of the islets is believed to be set by a secret pact reached in negotiations on the 1965 Treaty of Basic Relations between Japan and South Korea. It was a novel pact in which the two countries agreed to give tacit approval to each other’s rights to sovereignty claims. It was aimed at preventing the territorial dispute from obstructing normalization talks and economic cooperation.

The paradox is that, although it was the only practical “win-win” solution, it was still a secret pact, reached under the authoritarian South Korean government. The democratic development of South Korea since has made it impossible for Seoul to confine a public call to settle the territorial and historical issues with Japan. The two countries need to bring forward the spirit of the Takeshima secret pact through more open, more democratic diplomatic negotiations, but it now appears a more distant goal than ever.

Q: What prompted South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to visit the islets?

A: The other paradox of the Takeshima dispute is that it always coincides with the historical issue in the minds of Koreans, as they view Japan’s official incorporation of the islets in 1905 as the starting point of its colonization of the Korean Peninsula, whereas it is seen as territorial and fisheries issues in Japan. The president has been under strong domestic pressure to press Tokyo to take compensation action on the “comfort women” issue since the South Korean Supreme Court ruled last August that it should do so, and it was a primary aim of the summit talks in Kyoto in December.

Prime Minister Yoshikiko Noda replied, “Let us think about the issue from a humanitarian perspective,” but he failed to fulfill his promise. It was reported that Noda countered Lee by indicating that the Takeshima issue should also be put on the negotiation table. It broke with precedence of the "shuttle diplomacy" and, I believe, prompted Lee to take retaliatory action.

Q: How can the two countries break the gridlock?

A: I believe decoupling the historical and fisheries issues from the territorial dispute is the key. As a Korean resident in Japan, I believe it was the wrong political decision for Lee to land on the islets, because it is already hurting the two countries’ grassroots exchanges. But it could have been avoided if Japan had given sincere consideration to the sentiments of the Korean people. It needs to realize that anti-Japan sentiments will only grow, not wane, if it maintains the current stance that the war-related redress issue has already been resolved.

From Japan’s standpoints, the 1999 fisheries agreement, which allows both countries to conduct fishing in accordance with their own rules in waters around the Takeshima islets, is problematic, as it allows overexploitation by Korean fishing boats. The two countries need to start negotiations to set common fishery rules in the sea from the perspective of the protection of maritime resources. By removing these diplomatic frictions, the two countries can create a condition in which leaders of both sides no longer need to use Takeshima as a political card.

Q: Unfortunately, both Japan and South Korea seem ripe for a surge of nationalism. What are your thoughts on this?

A: I have tried to explain Korea’s viewpoint to the Japanese public through the media, despite receiving countless threatening letters. Even when the other side’s opinions and sentiments are unpleasant or even erroneous, we must understand what forms such opinion. We need to understand why there is persistent anti-Japan nationalism among Koreans and why people there see the Takeshima dispute as a historical issue, if we want to have a sound diplomatic relationship.

As a resident of Japan, I believe Lee’s comment of wanting the emperor to apologize was a political mistake, but we have to understand why he made the remark, and it was supported by many Koreans. The democratization and emergence of populism are like two sides of a coin, and the two countries both have growing social problems like widening disparities, which could pave the way for the rise of exclusionist nationalism.

I still have hope. When I was young, I could never imagine that a Korean resident like myself would be given this much of an opportunity to appear on TV and in other media. It is a paradox that there has been the "Hanryu" (Korean wave) boom in Japan and anti-Korea backlash, but I think it is a necessary process to build a more mature relationship between the two countries.

By HIROSHI MATSUBARA/ AJW Staff Writer
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