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Thursday, March 31, 2005


Questions of history hound relations

South Koreans say Japan's leadership role predicated on respect

Staff writer

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A recent heated row over a group of tiny islets in the Sea of Japan served as a reminder that Japan and South Korea are still "close but distant" neighbors, veteran journalists from South Korea told a recent symposium in Tokyo.

News photo
South Korean Journalists discuss relations with Japan during a symposium held March 17 at Keidanren Kaikan in Tokyo.

For Japan to take on a leadership role in Asia, the nation should be more broad-minded to win the respect of its neighbors in the region, rather than simply maintaining friendly ties with them, the journalists said.

"Arriving in Tokyo on a two-hour flight from Seoul, I felt that the distance between Japan and South Korea, after appearing to have become closer in recent years, has widened again," said Choi Sung Whan, a senior economic and financial writer of The Chosun Ilbo.

Choi and five other senior writers from major South Korean newspapers were speaking at the March 17 symposium organized by Keizai Koho Center at Keidanren Kaikan, under the theme, "Japan and future Japanese-South Korean relations in the eyes of South Korean journalists."

News photo
Hwang Ho Taeck

They took part in the forum in the middle of a five-day visit to Japan that included meetings with government officials, lawmakers, top business executives and scholars.

The symposium was held just as protests were flaring up in South Korea against a symbolic ordinance enacted by a local assembly in Shimane Prefecture stressing Japan's claim over a group of uninhabited islets in the Sea of Japan -- known as Takeshima in Japan and called Tok-do in Korea.

Points of contention

News photo
Jung Suk Koo

Tokyo says Takeshima has belonged to Japan since the nation incorporated the islets in a Cabinet decision in 1905, and that they had never been a foreign territory as of 1905.

South Korea, on the other hand, argues that Japan's claim to the islets is a legacy of its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Long plagued by the bitter memories of the colonial era, the atmosphere surrounding Japan-South Korean ties has substantially improved in recent years after the two countries successfully co-hosted the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in 2002 and as South Korean TV dramas and movies have stirred up a craze among Japanese fans.

But that changed recently -- at least in South Korea. President Roh Moo Hyun, in a strong-worded statement released last week, said his government "can no longer overlook (Japan's) move to justify its history of invasion and occupation and its intention to realize hegemonism again."

In addition to the islets row, the president's statement was also referring to a Japanese history textbook that critics say attempts to whitewash the country's past military aggression, as well as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war criminals among the nation's war dead.

News photo
Choi Sung Whan

Jung Suk Koo, an editorial writer of the Hankyoreh newspaper, said the gap in perception between Japanese and South Korean people over issues concerning past history, history textbooks and territorial claims is so wide that it cannot be easily narrowed.

Jung said he did not have a quick answer to how this problem can be resolved in a constructive manner. He argued that people in Japan do not seem to fully understand why South Korea is extra-sensitive about those issues.

"The reason why our country reacts so strongly to the Tok-do issue is that we still feel the deep scar that the country suffered over the 36-year-long colonial rule, Jung told the audience, "And it is an ongoing pain."

News photo
Keiko Chino

Unless the Japanese public comes to form an accurate perception of how South Koreans truly feel, questions of past history will continue to haunt bilateral ties, he noted.

Hwang Ho Taeck, an editorial writer of The Dong-A Ilbo, said the years of colonial rule by Japan were an era of humiliation for Koreans.

"Japanese people may feel irritated that they are always urged to apologize (over past history), but South Koreans see Japan as being too unwilling to apologize for what it had done," Hwang noted.

While the Japanese government may say its prime ministers visit the Yasukuni Shrine in their private capacity, those visits hurt the sentiments of people in South Korea and China, he said.

News photo
Kim Jong Soo

Hwang said Japan should at least remove the names of war criminals -- Japan's World War II leaders convicted by an Allied-led international tribunal -- from the list of people honored at the shrine. What would happen if Adolf Hitler were honored in a church and German government leaders today were to pay tribute there, he asked.

Respect vs. friendship

Kim Jong Soo, an editorial writer of The JoongAng Ilbo, said that for Japan to exert leadership commensurate with its economic power, it needs to gain the "respect" of other Asian countries, rather than merely maintaining "friendship" with them.

Historically, Japan has had a rather "dark" relationship with its neighbors in the region, and it needs to be more considerate of them, Kim argued.

Today, Japan continues to have frictions with many of its neighbors, particularly South and North Korea, China and Russia.

Of course Japan is not entirely to blame for the frictions, and domestic considerations do play a part in its actions, Kim said. But the nation should also consider whether it has taken a sufficiently mature position in trying to resolve problems, he added.

News photo
Kim Young Kyu

Despite historic twists and turns in their relations, there is still room for Japan and South Korea to work together, Kim stressed, citing a business community-sponsored project to facilitate exchanges of high school students between the two countries as a good example of efforts that can deepen mutual friendship.

Kim Young Kyu, a securities desk editor of The Korea Economic Daily, said Japan, South Korea and China working together could create an economic bloc that will be more powerful than the European Union.

For that to happen, Japan should take heed of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's words and try to become "first among equals" -- a leader rather than a boss in Northeast Asia.

Japan as the most advanced of the three regional economies should take the leading role, but should not look down on China or South Korea merely as its followers, he said. That way, there will be less friction as the three try to move forward.

Kim Se Hyoung, an editorial writer for Maeil Business Newspaper, said it is strange that there is no forum for a trilateral summit among Japan, South Korea and China -- even though they meet regularly with Southeast Asian countries at the ASEAN-plus-Three summit.

News photo
Kim Se Hyoung

Even though the three Northeast Asian countries combined have foreign currency reserves of $1.8 trillion, the current relationships between Japan, South Korea and China are "like a group of stray jewels that are not tied together as a necklace," he noted.

To achieve closer cooperation in Asia, Japan should behave in a more broad-minded manner toward its neighbors, he said.

While Japan has announced its bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a more ideal situation would be one where Japan's neighbors nominate it for the seat, instead of Tokyo bidding for such a status on its own, he observed.

Keiko Chino, an editorial writer of Japan's Sankei Shimbun who served as a coordinator in the symposium, commented that the latest Takeshima dispute may have come as a "bitter medicine" -- a warning that the two countries should yet not be overly optimistic about their ties.

"Japan and South Korea have overcome a number of difficulties since they established relations 40 years ago, and there will be a lot more to come," Chino said.

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