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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Han

Column: Practical diplomacy between Korea and Japan creates opportunities

Diplomacy between Japan and Korea

Even with the novel coronavirus blocking the path between nations and with Korean-Japanese relations at its worst, Japan is actually experiencing the fourth Korean wave. Korean dramas such as “Crash Landing on You” and “Itaewon Class” are gaining popularity, and JYP’s Japanese girls’ group “NiziU” is gaining strong attraction. After the first wave through “Winter Sonata”, the second wave by TVXQ, Girls’ Generation, and KARA, and the third wave by BTS and TWICE, the Korean wave is now commonplace in Japan.

Netflix is releasing many Korean contents, and other media such as regular broadcasts and weekly magazines are repeatedly taking up Korean special programmes. Japan’s NHK interviewed BTS’s management, and Korean cooking shows riding on the wave of popularity created by Korean dramas are often seen on Japanese television. The Weekly Asahi, AERA, Shukan Bunshun Enta and other media have published interviews of famous actor Lee Byung-hun, introductions of Korean dramas, special articles on JYP, and placed NiziU photos on their covers. At one point, hate speech and other anti-Korean movements had a strong influence, making it difficult for those who liked Korean culture to expose their views, but it is said that there is no such atmosphere right now.

President Moon Jae-in’s New Year’s press conference on the 18th is evidence of changes in Korea as well. President Moon, in reference to the comfort women issue, said, “the Korean government recognizes the (2015) agreement as an official agreement between the two countries”. This is just a reaffirmation of the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ position, but there is significance in the fact that the president made this point clear. Also, President Moon said, “Honestly, I am bewildered by the ruling on the comfort women issue while we were in the process of working”, and expressed his worry that Korean-Japanese relations would become more difficult.

It has taken far too long, but we are finally on the correct path. Diplomacy is warfare without gunfire. However, both countries have been overtly “fighting” during this time. Especially to the Korean side has been agitating anti-Japanese sentiments through “the Bamboo Spear theory” and “the local Japanese theory”, even going so far as to execute widespread boycotts. The government and the diplomats, who should have been working to stop the fighting, instead were providing fire support from behind. What was the cost of all of this? What kind of national interests did we gain in exchange for putting diplomatic, national security, and economic interests at risk? Diplomacy, which should have been used to pursue practical benefits, was tragically misused as cheap political tools.

We often compare the relationship between Korea and Japan with the relationship between Germany and France. Seen from the point of view of France, there is no doubt that Germany was a mortal enemy. But that relationship was changed by two great political leaders of both countries and their practical diplomatic policies. Now they have reached reconciliation and share in prosperity. When French President Charles de Gaulle and West Germany’s Chancellor Konrad Adenauer met in the Élysée Palace in Paris, France to sign the peace treaty between the two nations, they shared a strong hug. In the 1960s, France needed to reestablish strong relations with Germany, in order to counter not just the communist Soviet influence, but also to keep the Western Bloc - the United States and the United Kingdom - in check. There was no way to understate Germany’s needs - for West Germany to regain its trust, respect and standing in the international community, cooperation with France was critical.

The Claims Agreement between the Republic of Korea and Japan was signed in 1965 two years after the Élysée Treaty. The relationship between Korea and Japan and that between France and Germany seems similar but is quite different. The German-French connection is future-oriented, practical, and win-win, while the Korean-Japanese one is past-oriented, emotional, and adversarial.

The future is for the younger generation. Some present-day politicians threw away Japan as a “land of opportunity” in order to gain small benefits. Would they also willingly cut off trade between countries like the US and China, placing anti-American or anti-Chinese emotions on the forefront, claiming that the US is no good and China is arrogant?

Of course, we cannot for even an instant forget the agonizingly painful past. But isn’t it up to us to determine how Japan would take its next steps? Leaders in both Korea and Japan should take a deep look at how de Gaulle and Adenauer created a golden age for its future generation through practical diplomacy.


Joongang Ilbo column (January 30th, 2021) Han Kyung-hwan, General Editor for the Joongang Ilbo

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