Korea and Japan love to
By Aidan Foster-Carter
It's Japan-baiting season in Seoul again. But
when isn't it?
Only weeks after South Korea and
Japan won the world's praise for co-hosting an excellent
soccer World Cup, South Korea has three times taunted
its neighbor and alleged ally. On August 12 the
environment ministry announced a new marine national
park, comprising two islands: Ullungdo, which is
indisputably Korean - and Tokdo, a bunch of rocks also
claimed by Japan, which calls it Takeshima.
Equally at sea is a little-known body, the
Monaco-based International Hydrographic Organization
(IHO). For the first time in half a century, the IHO is
revising its global atlas of maritime names and
boundaries. South Korea insists that the waters between
Japan and Korea, generally known as the Sea of Japan, be
renamed the East Sea - as the Koreans call it. Faced
with this pressure, the IHO has left the sea nameless in
its draft - prompting an official protest from Japan.
With tactful timing, Tokyo's protest came on
August 15: the day when both Koreas celebrate liberation
from Japan's harsh colonial rule in 1945. This year,
inter-Korean ties being in one of their upswings, they
celebrated together in Seoul. Truth to tell, even when
not snarling - it's less than two months since the
Korean People's Army (KPA) sank a Republic of Korea
(ROK) patrol boat - North and South don't have a whole
lot in common.
So what better way to paper over
the cracks than putting a joint boot into the Japanese?
The liberation festivities closed on August 16 with a
stirring joint resolution to "launch an all-out national
movement to block Japan's distortion of history,
claiming of Tokdo, and ambitions to strengthen its
Distortion of history is a key issue.
Koreans feel, rightly, that Japan (unlike Germany) has
never said or done enough to repudiate its pre-1945
aggression and brutality. School textbooks are one
focus, such as a piece of revisionism approved last year
by Tokyo's ministry of education. The furor over this
undid Kim Dae-jung's patient efforts to build more
mature bilateral ties. Angry Koreans didn't notice, or
care, that most of Japan agreed. Just 12 mainly private
schools with 601 pupils adopted the new text.
Make that 1,000 now. On August 15 (great timing,
again) Ehime became the first prefecture to approve the
tawdry tome. Still, at least this year premier Junichiro
Koizumi kept away from the Yasukuni shrine on that date:
another red rag to Korean and Chinese bulls, as it
honors soldiers as well as 14 Class A war criminals. But
five cabinet ministers paid respects, as did Shintaro
Ishihara, Tokyo's far-right governor.
into a new millennium, Japan and South Korea are as far
apart as ever from burying the past or forging the fresh
partnership that any rational reading of their shared
interests demands. Objectively, far more unites them
than divides. Geographically, both are hilly, densely
peopled and resource-poor. Historically, both were
ancient nations and rice cultivators within the broad
Chinese cultural orbit. At various times Koreans helped
populate Japan, and Buddhism and more arrived via the
Economically, both have similar
systems - unsurprisingly, since Korea Inc emulated Japan
Inc. Today both are mighty industrial power houses, and
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's
only Asian members. Though they compete as exporters,
both depend on an open global trading system - and on
Southeast Asian sea lanes for the oil and gas they both
lack. For the same reason, both have invested heavily in
nuclear power generation. In security terms, both are
close US allies and host US bases. Each is threatened by
North Korea, and potentially by a rising China and the
uncertainties of Russia. Politically, both are firmly
All in all, it would be hard to find
two neighbors with more in common. Yet perversely, and
perilously, they prefer to scratch the sores of old
wounds than to build a shared future.
is future to be built, which won't and shouldn't
wait. Responsible politicians and media in both
countries should tackle and transcend old hatreds and
seek to resolve disputes, not foment them. This spat
over Tokdo is one example of unnecessary disagreement.
As for echoing North Korean diatribes against
Japan's military ambitions, this (in a favorite
Pyongyang cliche) is like a thief crying stop thief.
What ambitions? The Self Defense Force is quietly mighty
- but it's an ally, controlled both by the US and
Japan's pacifist constitution and sentiment. As for
Japan, beached whale is more like it. Most forecasts, as
in a recent New York Times series, see a nation whose
global clout is on the wane: a setting, not a rising
sun. For Koreans to pretend otherwise is sheer willful
One expects no better of the
North, but South Koreans are playing with fire here. For
many, not only can Japan do no right, but China can do
little wrong. For the 21st century that could be a
dangerous mindset. Without being hawkish, most of
Beijing's neighbors are circumspect, to say the least,
about what is plainly the new East Asia's rising power.
Like individuals, nations need closure. It's
long overdue for South Korea and Japan to move on. They
should learn from Europe. After 1945, France and
Germany, despite having fought three bitter wars in 70
years, put the past behind them. Better, they saw the
need to create institutions that would prevent such
horrors ever being repeated. Hence they became the two
cornerstones of a common market which in time developed
into today's EU.
Just so, Japan and South Korea,
as the region's two stable market democracies, should be
the prime movers to form an East Asian economic union.
That is a constructive way forward - unlike pointless
parks or nitpicking over names.
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