Seoul-Tokyo relations at rock bottom

Posted on : 2012-08-18 10:35 KST Modified on : 2012-08-18 10:35 KST
Series of recent spats posing risk to economic cooperation between neighbors

By Kim Young-hee , Ha Eo-young and Seong Yeon-Cheol, staff reporters

Tokyo has been taking action against Seoul in a variety of ways over the days following President Lee Myung-bak's recent visit to Dokdo. Conflicts between South Korea and Japan over the islets and other unresolved historical issues are nothing new, but this situation is different, as its effects are now beginning to reach over into the economy, culture, and private exchange.

As the game of chicken stretches out, observers are saying a restoration of normal ties appears unlikely under the current administrations??? Both countries will hold elections in the near future.

Japan moving on various fronts

On August 17 Japanese finance minister Jun Azumi formally pulled out from a bilateral finance ministers' meeting that was scheduled for next week. In the process, he hinted at a possible freeze in planned expansions of the two countries' currency swaps.

Izumi called the current situation "extremely dismaying, when we were planning to reach out and help South Korea with its serious economic situation." The finance minister was referring to the decision at a summit meeting last October to increase the amount of swaps during foreign exchange crisis from US$13 billion to US$70 billion. Izumi added that Tokyo would be considering "various options" on the matter.

The issue of abandoning currency swaps was initially raised by a small subset of right-leaning online media. Now, amid increasing anti-Korea sentiment in Japan, the government is officially considering scrapping the swaps.

The Sankei Shimbun also reported that Japan was considering withdrawing its planned support for South Korea in its bid for election as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council for 2013-2014. The election is set to take place at a UN General Assembly meeting in October. The newspaper quoted an opinion from within the government that South Korea was "not suited to be a nonpermanent UNSC member when it turns its back on a peaceful resolution to conflict based in international law."

Japan's three main parties - the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the New Komeito - are considering adopting a joint House of Representatives and House of Councilors resolution denouncing South Korea for Lee's Dokdo visit and remarks seeking an apology from Emperor Akihito, and China for the landing of a group from Hong Kong on the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. The resolution is expected to be adopted sometime next week after the content is decided on through discussions on August 20 with the administration and between the parties. Meanwhile, some opposition politicians said Shimane Prefecture's "Takeshima Day" should be made into a national holiday.

'War of words'

Both Seoul and Tokyo seem to be waiting for the other to back down. After the recent postponement of a South Korea miniseries airing on Japanese satellite television and the planned opening of a South Korea office by a Japanese card company, the city of Dangjin in South Chungcheong province, announced on August 16 that it was cutting off relations with its Japanese sister city Daisenshi in Akita Prefecture.

Foreign journalists are also expressing concern about the Blue House's statement of plans to take "severe disciplinary action" against Kyodo News for reporting on the Dokdo visit the night before it took place. An embargo was put in place preventing domestic media from reporting on Lee’s visit, but that embargo didn’t apply to foreign media. The Blue House called the Kyodo report an excessive reaction and objected to the fact that it was based on information gathered by the reporter.

Many observers are saying the remarks about the Japanese emperor are more to blame for the recent situation than the Dokdo visit. A Japanese reporter working in Seoul said, "Seeing the way that even liberal news outlets have been criticizing [Lee], I really got a sense of how significant a figure the emperor is to Japanese people."

"I have to wonder if the South Korean president didn't take a very casual view about what might happen because of him saying such a thing," the reporter added.

Azumi was also critical of the remarks Friday. "We cannot simply ignore remarks that were severely out of line and run against the emotions of the Japanese people," he said.

Foreign minister Koichiro Genba was quoted by Jiji Press as saying, "It is not good for South Korea if such unconstructive remarks continue. We hope he will correct his recent remarks." Genba comments came during an August 17 meeting with South Korean ambassador to Japan Shin Kak-soo, whom he was informing about Tokyo's plans for taking the Dokdo case before the International Court of Justice.

South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade expressed consternation over the situation that erupted over the country's actions to draw attention to the Dokdo issue.

An official there said, "We can't possibly gain from pushing the Dokdo issue because we're the ones with effective ownership."

However, the same official added, "In terms of foreign policy and actions, we follow the course set by the president."

Where does it go from here?

The ruling New Frontier Party is joining the calls to "slow things down." During a party-administration meeting Friday on national defense, foreign affairs and trade, and unification at the National Assembly, National Defense Committee chairman Yoo Seong-min said military authorities needed to refrain from carrying out their announced plans of joint exercises for Dokdo's defense.

"Too much is as bad as not enough," Yoo said. "We can't only be about going too hard."

Ahn Hong-joon, who chairs the Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Unification Committee, said, "We need to listen to the people who are voicing concern about us getting drawn into Japan's attempts to turn Dokdo into a disputed region."

The Sankei Shimbun, which typically leans right, noted calls for forbearance in the recent moves to cancel a bilateral summit meeting scheduled for Sept. 9. "In some quarters, people are saying, 'Given that we're right and they're wrong, we need to meet properly and make a legitimate case rather than dodging the issue,'" the newspaper reported.

It also noted the possibility that the Japanese business community could object to the currency swap tactics because of the economic importance of the agreements.

"We need to keep our policies on territorial matters clearly separate from our policies on economic cooperation and private exchange," said Jin Chang-soon, head of the Sejong Institute's Japan Center. "Our policies should be about managing the situation instead of getting caught in an emotional, vicious cycle."

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