September 1, 2008｜Korean Peninsula
Im Chon Sok
Professor, The College of Commerce and Economics, Konkuk University
This February a new administration came into being in the ROK. The change of government in the ROK, with a president chosen via direct popular elections every five years, brings changes in policy in a great many areas, reflecting the political philosophy and political objectives of the president who is elected. In foreign relations the new president, Lee Myung-bak, from before his inauguration has expressed his intention to emphasize relations with the United States and Japan, relations which had continued to become estranged in the Roh Moo-hyun era. Toward Japan in particular, he has displayed a policy direction of focusing on the construction of future-oriented ROK–Japan relations, without fussing over past historical issues. At the ROK–Japan summit meeting, which took place at the time of President Lee’s visit to Japan in April, a positive and ambitious plan for ROK–Japan cooperation was announced, including policy coordination for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia, the strengthening of economic cooperation and future-oriented cooperation, and jointly tackling global issues. A great number of people in both countries had probably been hoping for quite an advance in ROK–Japan relations, which for the time being had been at a standstill, with the establishing of the new ROK government.
Subsequently, however, the Japanese government decided to put its claim of sovereignty over the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takeshima) in the new curriculum guidelines for junior high schools. This brought a strong reaction in public opinion in the ROK, and the ROK government too has protested strongly to the Japanese government. All major matters and dialogue between the ROK and Japan were suspended, and the non-attendance of the President of the ROK is expected at the Trilateral Meeting of the Leaders of the ROK, China and Japan planned to take place in late September in Japan.
The ROK, as it has had the experience of being under Japanese colonial rule in the past, is highly sensitive, and public interest is great in historical and territorial issues connected with Japan. In particular, having faced strong public criticism surrounding US beef imports immediately after its establishment, the new government as the current government must also take great notice of public opinion on the present problem of the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takeshima), and the scope of policy options with regard to Japan does not look that broad.
Private exchanges between the ROK and Japan in recent years, particularly youth exchanges, have flourished. Among the students at the university where I work, there are many who have visited Japan, whether because of reciprocal exchanges with their sister schools when they were in junior high or high school, or as tourists. Additionally there has been a rapid increase in the number of Japanese coming to the ROK for tourism or to study. Needless to say, the expansion of such civil exchanges plays a profound role in deepening mutual understanding between the two countries and increasing trust.
Today’s blocking of relations by the ROK at the level of its politicians and high-ranking bureaucrats, however, will probably cause much damage, delaying cooperation on pending problems which require cooperation between the ROK and Japan and on future-oriented issues.
Why, despite the coming into existence in the ROK of a Japan-friendly administration, has there been a repeat of the negative effect on ROK–Japan relations across the board, with ROK–Japan relations souring for virtually the same reason?
There has been much criticism from home and abroad regarding the civic and government-level response in the ROK concerning this latest claim to the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takeshima). Today’s emotional response can easily tarnish the ROK’s image within the international community, and a more rational response is needed. Furthermore, there is also the point of view that for the ROK to become a developed country it must build cooperation with Japan with the historical and territorial issues separated, as there are many issues requiring Japan’s cooperation. The ROK should lend more of an ear to such opinions.
Along with this, the Japanese government also needs to show consideration in being more careful not to provoke the people of the ROK on historical and territorial issues. The recent situation is telling us that however much the ROK government wants to improve relations with Japan, it can’t make any progress if it doesn’t have the support of public opinion.