The Korea Herald


[Lee Jae-min] Taking Korea-Japan ties to next level

By 최남현

Published : April 5, 2011 - 18:42

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The outpouring of goodwill from Korea in the aftermath of the unprecedented tsunami was supposed to usher in a new era for Korea and Japan’s bilateral relationship. When the Japanese ambassador personally appeared in a live interview with an anchorman on KBS about two weeks ago, his fluency in Korean, understanding of Korean culture and sincere appreciation for the assistance from here endeared him to many native viewers.

The new hope, however, was quickly dashed by the Japanese government’s recent approval of the middle school textbooks which describe the Dokdo islets as Japanese territory under Korean occupation. In fact, the relationship has apparently shifted into reverse.

The Korean foreign minister called in the Japanese ambassador for a meeting and the Korean ambassador in Tokyo lodged a formal protest with the Japanese foreign minister. When Korean press approached the Japanese ambassador after the meeting with the Korean foreign minister, the stern-faced ambassador reiterated Japan’s appreciation for Korean support after the recent disaster. Of course, he is simply a messenger working under strict instructions from Tokyo, but it is surreal to see the same ambassador in two different settings in just two weeks.

In its sanction of the said middle school textbooks, the Education Ministry of Japan highlighted that the reviews and approval have been completed from an academic point of view. Knowing the history of Japanese challenges against the Korean sovereignty over the island, few would take such explanations at face value. It is a signal that more systematic challenges are in the offing.

As a matter of fact, it would be very naive to expect a country to change its position on grave issues like this simply because some assistance and donations have been offered by a neighboring country after a natural disaster. Permeation of gratefulness and business as usual are two different things. More so, given Japan’s extreme composure after the disaster.

And yet, none would better describe the complexity of Korea-Japan relationship than the unexpected development for the past three weeks. The two countries are close neighbors with increasing cultural exchanges. There are both potentials and needs to further strengthen the bilateral relationship including the ongoing discussions of a free trade agreement. But as long as Tokyo’s denial of Korean sovereignty over the islets continues to conjure up bitter memories of the past, all these potentials and needs would be simply illusory.

From both legal and practical perspectives, Japan should know a transfer of the island’s ownership is impossible. In that regard, the textbook approval and follow-up actions will not change anything in reality. What is alarming, however, is to see Japan pursue its choreographed plan in the middle of the once-in-a-century national emergency and in full awareness of how Korea would respond to such a plan, particularly at this juncture. In a sense, Japan has made clear that it would not budge an inch as far as this issue is concerned whether doing so is practical or not. This issue will almost operate as a reset button that can erase any sort of piecemeal development with a single push.

The Sisyphean task from Greek mythology would be another way of describing it: you push the boulder all the way up to the top of the hill only to see it roll back down to the bottom. On the other hand, the moment Japan recognizes the historical and legal underpinnings that establish the Korean sovereignty over Dokdo the bilateral relationship will proceed in leaps and bounds to the next level. Granted, this is not likely in any foreseeable future, but this seems to be the only way to get us out of the current vicious circle. The recent ups and downs in Seoul-Tokyo relations have again emphasized this point.

Japan is known to be a country of manuals, where virtually everything is planned ahead and executed according to that plan. Real friendship with its closest neighbor will only come when the manuals are shelved for the time being and open minds for the future take their place. 

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University, in Seoul. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. ― Ed.