Four-fold Gaps and Troubled Partnership between Korea and Japan
Cheol Hee Park (Seoul National University)
Pundits say that the current Korea-Japan relationship is at its bottom since the diplomatic normalization between the two. That description may rather be an exaggeration, but I do agree with the point that the Korea-Japan relationship is exceptionally twisted and abnormal at this stage. Leaders of both countries are shying away from meeting each other for more than eight months since they assumed power. Communication channels between the two countries are not functioning properly. Emotional clashes between the two are intensifying. Nobody is trying to fix the problem, though. There is no roadmap for resuming the ties, either.
Four-fold gaps are underlying the troubled partnership between Korea and Japan.
The first gap is a ‘cognition gap’ between the two. Two sides have different recognition about the starting point of bilateral frictions. The Japanese side points out that former President Lee’s Dokdo visit opened a door to emotional conflicts between the two countries. On the other hand, the Korean side claims that former Prime Minister Noda’s inadvertent and clumsy responses to the comfort women issue led to an impasse between the two sides. In that both sides carelessly handled pending issues, they can hardly blame each other.
The second gap may be an ‘adaptation gap’. Japan has not adapted yet to a vibrantly internationalizing Korea. Koreans have acquired more confidence than before in proactively dealing with foreign affairs, particularly with Japan. Korea has not adapted to a frustrated Japan. Japanese frustration emerged in the midst of decade-long economic stagnation and political instability, which led to a sense of being isolated and lagged behind. However, in that both sides are preoccupied with the timeworn practice of blaming the other, no profound change can be detected.
The third gap may be a ‘strategic perception gap’. With the rise of China, Japan takes a proactive strategy of encircling China with a view to taking an upper hand position in a diplomatic negotiation with China. From the Japanese angle, China is a competitor, a challenger, and a potential threat. On the other hand, Korea takes rising China as an opportunity as well as a challenge. In particular, in order to handle provocative North Korea, Chinese cooperation is indispensible. Korea does not feel the need to antagonize China at least. Therefore, in dealing with rising China, Korea and Japan have diverging strategic viewpoints.
Last but not least is an ‘identity gap’. Japanese leaders are trying to revise their conventional historical perspective in a way that emboldens Japan’s national pride. This history revisionism is viewed as a distortion of the past history from a Korean standpoint. Korea revolts against any attempt by the Japanese to negate, distort, and glorify the past history, assuming that this would lead to a return to an ancient regime. Japan regards this Korean mentality as a psychological preoccupation with the past.
It is not easy to overcome these four-fold gaps with a single stroke or by a single summit meeting. However, without advancing dialogue between the two countries, frictions would never fade away. There is no way but to face each other and engage in a dialogue if anyone wants to reduce the existing gaps between the two. Cognition gap and adaptation gap can be handled rather comfortably, because many of them stem from misperceptions and lack of communication. A strategy gap may be adjusted if the two sides develop an eye for strategic regional landscape. An Idea gap may remain as a hurdle, but both sides may be able to manage frictions at a controllable level if the two leaders agree upon a certain formula.
A meeting between President Park and Prime Minister Abe may provide an opportunity to break the ice. However, considering that both leaders are acting in a politically charged environment, holding a bilateral summit meeting may be a burden. Instead, the two leaders can encounter and exchange greetings as well as good will to improve the relationship at a multilateral setting. ASEAN Plus Three and APEC meetings are expected to be held in October. Foreign ministries of both countries should take the best advantage of these opportunities. President Park can take a strong initiative to convene a tripartite talk among Xi, Park, and Abe at a Korea-Japan-China summit meeting. Korea is the host country for the meeting this year and should never bypass the chance to hold it. After those dialogues in a multilateral setting, the two leaders can prepare for a bilateral summit in the not-so-distant future.
In the meantime, Japanese politicians should avoid any provocative actions or words that can be interpreted as distortion, negation, or glorification of the past history. Also, Korea should be ready to negotiate with Japan on the comfort women issue while avoiding senseless actions concerning Dokdo.
Ultimately, both Korea and Japan should make the utmost efforts to enhance strategic ties between the two, utilizing the year 2015 as a new starting point for deepened and enlarged cooperation. Joint declaration, celebrating the 50th anniversary of bilateral ties, should be prepared. History issues should be properly addressed there. Also future-oriented vision of the two countries, which encompasses bilateral, regional, and global issues, should be in order as well.