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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, June 19, 2005


Japan-S. Korea chasm deepening

By Richard Halloran

Unless there is a last-minute hitch, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan will meet with President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea in Seoul tomorrow in what may turn out to be a critical turning point affecting not only their nations but the rest of East Asia and the United States.

At immediate issue is a litany of disputes between Seoul and Tokyo ranging from the legacy of Japan's 35-year occupation of Korea to ways to negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions to conflicting territorial claims in the sea that separates the peninsula and the island nation.

Fundamentally, Korean antipathy for Japan, never far below the surface, has erupted in recent months to bring tensions to a boil. President Roh evidently seeks to forge this antagonism into a political club with which to gain an upper hand over Japan and to enhance his own faltering status at home.

Roh set a stern tone for dealing with Japan in an open letter to the South Korean people in March: "We can no longer stand by and watch Japan's attempts to justify its history of aggression and occupation and its intention to achieve hegemony again, because this is a matter that will determine the future of the Korean Peninsula and northeast Asia."

Unless the South Korean and Japanese leaders find a way to reconcile their differences, the division of East Asia into two camps, one led by China, the other by the United States and Japan, will only deepen. Most Asian nations want to avoid being forced to choose between them, but if South Korean hatred for Japan causes Seoul to slip into the Chinese camp, a day of choice for other nations may have drawn closer.

For the United States, political strife between Japan and South Korea, both allies by treaty and sites of U.S. military bases, does little good to American national interests and the security of U.S. forces in Asia. Quarreling allies erode U.S. political influence and military posture in the western Pacific.

Moreover, Roh's meeting with Koizumi follows by 10 days the South Korean president's distinctly cool reception by President Bush in Washington. They met but briefly in the White House, did not issue the joint statement that often follows such meetings, and did little to inform the press and public about what had been said.

Roh and South Korean officials sought to reassure the world that Seoul's alliance with the United States was firm. "Whatever problem arises in the course of our negotiations and talks," Roh said, "we will be able to work them out under close consultations." The external evidence suggested otherwise.

On another segment of the U.S.-Japan-South Korea-China quadrangle, Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan of South Korea was due to meet Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China in Beijing shortly after the Koizumi visit to Seoul. China has actively sought in recent months to entice South Korea into its camp.

In contrast, anti-Japanese demonstrations and government pronouncements in China have soured relations between Tokyo and Beijing. The Chinese effort to gain a political upper hand over Japan, however, has backfired as Japanese spines have stiffened.

The litany of South Korean complaints about Japan start with a long-standing contention that Japan has not apologized sufficiently for its harsh rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Koreans deplore what they consider to be cavalier accounts in Japanese textbooks of Korean women forced into wartime prostitution and Korean men into hard labor.

Koreans lament visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine dedicated to the spirits of Japan's war dead. South Korea and Japan both claim uninhabited rocky islets in the waters between them, the Koreans calling them Dokdo and the Japanese Takeshima. That sea itself is called the East Sea by Koreans and the Sea of Japan by Japanese.

Roh and Koizumi agree that persuading North Korea to give up plans to acquire nuclear arms must proceed through diplomacy. Roh, however, takes a soft line, as do the Chinese, while Koizumi prefers a harder line, like that of Bush. Roh opposes Japan's bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Negotiations for a free-trade agreement have been hung up for months.

Indeed, relations between South Korea and Japan are so contentious that Roh let it be known that he might call off Koizumi's visit. Usually, these meetings are scheduled weeks or months ahead of time, but not until Tuesday did Roh decide to go ahead. Not a good sign for a constructive outcome.

Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia.