The Korea Herald


[Kadir Jun Ayhan and Nancy Snow] S. Korea, Japan should not let politics override personal ties

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 15, 2019 - 17:16

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South Korea and Japan are having the tensest moment in their history since the end of Japanese occupation of the peninsula. The problem has a lot to do with economic self-interests and uncertainty in an anarchic world, hampering cooperation.

Yes, to some extent, this is a realpolitik issue where maintaining national power is paramount. However, the problem has more to do with historical trajectories and self-esteem. The early Greeks talked about the importance of acknowledging self-esteem and emotions in relations between countries, as well as material mutual interests.

South Korea’s position is that its current problems are intertwined with the past. Until Japan fully apologizes and shows empathy for its past atrocities, the two countries cannot move forward. Japan’s position is that it has apologized, paid reparations for atrocities like forced sexual slavery, and that negotiations today need to separate history from economics. 

We cannot come up with a panacea to the hard-pressing problems between the two countries, which damage both countries economically and socially in a classic game of chicken. The problems are complex and require multidimensional diplomatic approaches. However, we would like to pay attention to one specific aspect of this bilateral relationship, which is people-to-people exchanges.

People-to-people exchanges between Japan and South Korea, particularly that of businesspeople, played very important roles in the diplomatic normalization of relations. In a bottom-up fashion, people of both countries urged their governments to begin diplomatic relations, so that bilateral trade, travel and cooperation, which were deemed essential, would be more efficient.

There have been thousands of exchange programs or forums between businesspeople, professionals, bureaucrats, public officers, artists, students and youth. However, many of these decadeslong exchanges have been canceled or postponed due to tense relations recently.

Exchanges facilitate more interactions between the people of two countries, and more potential for building mutual understanding. These grassroots interactions create a solid basis on which traditional diplomacy is built. They not only complement diplomacy, but serve as its foundation.

For any diplomatic solution to bilateral problems to be legitimate, public support and acceptance are vital, and these can be more easily acquired if diplomacy is not limited to state-level negotiations, but extended collaboratively on a relational level to its public dimension, that is, facilitating genuine dialogue and collaboration between two societies at the grassroots level.

The bottom line is that citizens can play an important role as public diplomats in some fashion. This badge of honor should be worn in an effort to listen and learn, among many other cultural and communication skills, that are often in short supply during formal diplomatic impasses.

In that spirit, we salute a recent exchange procession that took place. On Aug. 4, amid feverish tensions and canceled exchanges between Japan and South Korea, a procession took place in Japan. Fifty South Koreans dressed as “Korean envoys” of the Edo Period (1603-1867) and 250 Japanese celebrated the nearly 40-year old Izuhara Port Festival on Tsushima Island.

Despite some city officials canceling their appearance, these 300 Japanese and South Korean people felt it was more important to give a public presentation of close ties. They exchanged friendly messages, including words of a Confucian scholar Amenomori Hoshu (1668-1755) of the Tsushima domain, who encouraged “not cheating and fighting with each other, but rather engaging each other with open minds.” Hoshu’s words ring as true now as they did centuries ago.

The social identities of Japanese and Korean people are deeply affected by their interpersonal interactions, as well as group-level and state-level communication. Socially isolated from one another, historical and deep-rooted antagonisms will calcify as they will be more likely to alienate and dehumanize the other. Japan’s national broadcaster NHK recently published how public opinion is being impacted by the worsening relations between South Korea and Japan. Hashtags range from the positive to negative, “I like/don’t like Japan” to “I like/don’t like South Korea.” One tweeter told NHK that she was sorry that so many private exchanges had been canceled.

We advocate for keeping people-to-people channels as open as possible, since they can keep playing important roles in bilateral relations as the solid background of traditional diplomatic channels, as it had done for decades. We salute the gestures of continuity in personal exchanges from the smallest to the largest.  

Kadir Jun Ayhan and Nancy Snow
Kadir Jun Ayhan is a professor of international relations at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi professor of public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies and emeritus professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton. She resides in Tokyo. -- Ed.