Over the past several years, relations between Korea and Japan have steadily deteriorated. President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have not had a summit and only speak occasionally at international gatherings. Irresponsible media in both countries stir nationalist sentiment through negative, often sensational, reporting. Out of concern for the deteriorating situation, Ogata Sadako, Han Sung-Joo and Ezra F. Vogel wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post (April 12, 2014) that called on both nations to work to improve relations.
How bad are relations? According to a 2013 BBC World Service survey, 21 percent of Koreans view Japan’s influence in the world as positive and 19 percent of Japanese view South Korea’s influence as positive. By contrast, 67 percent of Koreans view Japan’s influence as negative, and 28 percent of Japanese view Korea’s influence as negative. Among the 25 countries surveyed, only China has a more negative view of Japan. Other surveys in both countries show similar results.
The number of Japanese tourists visiting Korea has declined over the past year, though the decline is partly because the Japanese yen has declined in value, which makes Korea more expensive. The hallyu boom in Japan appears to be weakening, which has caused a decline in enrolment in Korean classes in Japanese universities. In Korea, interest in Japanese pop culture has also waned. Other factors are no doubt at play, but the hardening of negative feelings has certainly not helped.
The easiest way to improve relations is for leaders in both nations to recognize that both nations need each other. Mutual need exerts a powerful influence on nations to overcome their differences and work toward better relations. In the past, Korea needed Japan as a source of investment, advanced technology and tourist income. Japan needed Korea mainly as an export market. As Korea has closed the gap economically with Japan, needs on both sides have converged to the point where ill feeling affects both nations negatively.
Apart from economic needs, both nations share strategic interests. Both nations are worried about North Korean aggression and know that they would have to work together in a crisis. Both nations also worry about the rise of China as a regional power, though Japan appears more concerned. Finally, both have military alliances with the U.S. that bind them together under the American sphere of influence in Asia.
Korea and Japan both have aging societies, though Korea is only beginning to experience the effects of aging that Japan has been going through. History offers little guidance on what aging societies should do, but common sense suggests that they will need to reach out to others to make up for shrinking markets at home.
History shows that great leaders are proactive rather than reactive. Proactive leaders look at a situation and develop a theory of a solution from which they develop specific policies. Reactive leaders respond to events as they happen and, if they are lucky, go down in history as “good managers.”
In dealing with Japan, Korea has had two proactive leaders: Park Chung-hee and Kim Dae-jung. Park Chung-hee needed Japanese investment and technology to support his drive for economic development and normalized relations with Japan in 1965, despite strong opposition. Facing near economic collapse in 1998, Kim Dae-jung reached out to Japan for investment as part of a broader opening of the economy. Korea and Japan had been selected as cohosts of the 2002 World Cup and Kim wanted that event to succeed.
Both presidents put Korea’s needs first and reached out to Japan, which responded positively in turn. Kim Dae-jung’s efforts included lifting a partial ban on importing Japanese cultural products into Korea, which helped create positive attitudes toward Korea that fed the hallyu boom in 2003. As the boom progressed, Korean pop culture became big business in Japan and Japanese tourists flocked to Korea.
Proactive leadership to improve relations is needed today. President Park can wait for Prime Minister Abe to reach out, but that only continues the reactive policy that she has followed so far. Instead, she should take the lead and reach out to Japan. She should invite Prime Minister Abe to Seoul for a summit focusing on mutual needs and developing goodwill while laying the ground for future talks on reducing tension between the two nations. In the end, Korea and Japan know that their relationship is too important to leave to irresponsible, sensationalist media, which is why proactive leadership will cause a positive response.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser is an associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. ― Ed.