"Times have changed."
That was Park Geun-hye's answer when I asked her nearly seven years ago if she really thought a woman could become president of South Korea, a country steeped in Confucian values.
The South Korean presidential election of Dec. 19 proved Park had been right.
2012 was marked by a number of elections of national leaders around the world.
EAST ASIA'S CROP OF 'HEREDITARY' LEADERS
Shinzo Abe, who was elected as prime minister on Dec. 26, must feel an affinity for Park, a conservative. Abe's grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, a prime minister who, like Park's father, Park Chung-hee, was stridently anti-communist.
Park Chung-hee was president of South Korea when diplomatic ties were restored between the two countries in 1965.
Looking to other parts of East Asia, I am struck by an interesting coincidence that has arisen in this region. That is, the leaders of Japan, South Korea, North Korea and China are now all "hereditary" politicians.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un succeeded the Kim dynasty founded by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, while Chinese President Xi Jinping, a son of Xi Zhongxun, is a member of the "Princelings," or Crown Prince Party made up of the descendants of prominent senior officials of the Chinese Communist Party.
Where the forebears of these four new leaders are concerned, their paths crossed in a complex mesh of pre-World War II history. Kishi served as a high-ranking official in Manchukuo, a puppet state set up by Japan in 1932. Shortly after Kishi, Park Chung-hee relocated there from colonial Korea as an officer of the Manchukuo Imperial Army.
In the meantime, Kim Il Sung engaged in anti-Japan guerrilla warfare in Manchukuo near the Korean border, while Xi Zhongxun led the People's Liberation Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
This history symbolizes the problems that still affect East Asia today. Japan and North Korea have yet to normalize their relations. The impediments to this center mainly around the abduction issue and Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions and missile development.
As for Japan's relations with South Korea and China, decades have passed since relations were normalized. Yet, the so-called comfort women issue and territorial disputes remain lodged like big thorns.
With the exception of Kim Jong Un, who is in a category of his own, "hereditary" leaders bear a special kind of burden that is different from that of non-hereditary leaders.
Abe, whose perception of history is quite similar to his grandfather Kishi's, believes strongly in revising the Constitution. Understandably, Japan's neighbors are wary of Abe. Park, who loves and respects her late father, knows the importance of her country's relations with Japan, but would like to shed her "pro-Japanese" image that dogs her. According to an ironic analysis by a South Korean political scientist, a leftist South Korean regime with no pro-Japanese proclivities should be able to get along with Japan better.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party blames the Democratic Party of Japan's "failed diplomacy" for the territorial disputes with China and South Korea, and other negative developments. But it is also a fact that Asia's power dynamics have shifted significantly due to Japan's decline and China's rapid growth.
Abe is a hard-liner on issues of history and territory, but he appears capable of changing his tack if circumstances require. Still, one must bear firmly in mind that to flash provocative cards and fan the partner's apprehension and resentment is to play a very dangerous game.
END DANGEROUS CHAIN REACTION
Each country has its own serious problems. North Korea continues its brinksmanship diplomacy, depending on its nuclear and missile development programs for survival. This is the neighbor South Korea has to deal with while struggling with its own problems at home, such as a growing income gap and rifts in society.
China, where the inconsistencies of pursuing a market economy while remaining under the Communist Party's single-party rule can no longer be ignored, has strong anxieties about its economic growth and social stability. And Japan has remained in a state of political dysfunction, unable to chart any realistic course for its society that is rapidly aging and shrinking.
A rosy future is definitely not in store for any of these countries. In fact, they are all groping in the fog. This renders it crucial that they recognize the magnitude of their overlapping interests. The spate of anti-Japanese riots in China that targeted Japanese businesses has brought all sorts of negative consequences to the Chinese economy and society. For Japan, China's cooperation is indispensable to getting Pyongyang to change its position on nuclear development and the abduction issue. And unless Japan and South Korea can work together on the strength of their shared democratic values, they will never be able to counter or engage China, which is growing into a formidable superpower.
The crises that arose in 2012 in Japan's relations with China and South Korea are of a difficult nature and cannot be expected to be settled quickly. It is easy for the leader of one nation to criticize another. But what is expected of all true leaders is the wisdom and courage to stop any chain reaction of dangerous and misguided nationalism by firmly warning their own people against it.
Which of the four leaders will be the first to overcome the "curse" of history and lead East Asia in the right direction? This is what they should be vying on to get right.
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Yoshibumi Wakamiya is editor in chief of The Asahi Shimbun.
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