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[Opinion] No Advantage to Tough Stance Against Japan

Posted August. 03, 2001 09:16,   


The Korean government`s handling of the issue of historical distortions in Japanese school textbook reveals a lack of concern for national interest and paralysis in foreign relations. This is not to say that the government’s demand for revisions is not right or appropriate. The actual measures, however, that the government has taken are ineffective and much too costly to Korea for it to be a wise policy.

First of all, the relation between the end and the means is disproportional. The demand for revisions is a problem that requires long-term effort. By publicly affirming the state’s commitment to pursue the policy to the end, the President has created a situation where world opinion on the Korean government and its performance in foreign relations rests on the success of the policy. The government intends to invest limitless number of diplomatic effort and personnel in order to achieve the said goal. One supposes that the government is ready to take the blame in case the effort fails and the damage is done to foreign relations.

The current policy will be followed by even more firm measures. The government has taken the position that goes beyond terminating additional intercultural development and school exchange programs, stating that Korea will isolate Japan from the international community and freeze cooperation in international security. Taking a stronger stance on the issue as a reprisal will have negative impact on Korean foreign relations, raising the question whether the government is willing to completely ignore the consequences. The government will have to assess objectively to what extent it will go in order to secure the textbook revisions.

The situation developing from government officials following the course of action set by the Blue House, publicly announcing the tough stance, is a far cry from the kind of rational objectivity that one expected from the government’s foreign policy. It is a question whether the President`s inner circle`s value system, faculty of judgment, and primary focus on domestic issues such as the North Korea policy is paralyzing a healthy foreign policy operation.

There are many interpretations of why the Korean government is taking such an unprecedented strong stance on the textbook issue, such as the historical relationship with Japan, the substantial nature of the textbook issue, Korean national sentiment, the sense of betrayal that the Korean leader feels, and the serious concern over Japan`s rightist leanings. Among these, two interpretations are worth examining.

There is a theory that international relations studies borrows from psychology called `displacement.`` When applied to the Korean situation, it means that the government is using Japan as a target for redirecting Korean citizens’ resentment, criticism, and dissatisfaction with the Korean government. Although the Korean government may not be conscious of such motivations, the end results indicate as much.

The second interpretation is that the principal interest in maintaining the ``Sunshine Policy`` with North Korea, especially to make possible the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il`s return visit, constitutes the measure for every other foreign policy. The heavy handed policy toward Japan alleviates the people`s criticisms about the North Korea policy and conveys a clear message of solidarity with North Korea and China against Japan. This contributes to preparing the right environment for Chairman Kim Jong-Il to make his return visit.

If these are the actual motivations for the Korean government, they have made a miscalculation. North Korea may welcome South Korea’s display of independence from Japan or United States on ideological grounds, but whether South Korea is an attractive party without the influence that comes with U.S. and Japan’s confidence in South Korea.

There is also the interpretation that the government succumbed to national opinion that supported a tougher stance on the issue. In fact, neither the Japanese nor the Korean governments foresaw that the textbook issue would become so public and both missed the opportunity to reach a politically sound resolution. An immediate intervention is necessary in order to prevent the recent possibilities for national reconciliation between Korea and Japan from breaking down. Yet both nations do not have any way to control the situation and recognize that the chances for a compromise are slim. Even if the blown up proportions of the textbook issue decreases, it is no longer a question of merely correcting the textbook content.

Some scholars anticipate an opening for a settlement when the two nations will gather for a summit in October. Such expectations, however, are dimmed by the controversial issues surrounding the Namkuril Island saury operations and the Japanese Prime Minister`s August 15 Yasukuni Shrine worship.

Kim Young Jin (George Washington University Honorary Professor, Japan Keio University Visiting Scholar, International Relations)