Prominent opinion leaders from Japan and South Korea got together at a Seoul hotel July 18 to discuss ways to improve bilateral relations strained by the differences in historical perceptions and the territorial dispute over a pair of islets in the Sea of Japan.
A total of 13 Japanese politicians, diplomats, scholars, journalists and other prominent figures attended the Second Japan-Korea Future Dialogue forum, organized by The Genron NPO of Japan and South Korean think tank, the East Asia Institute (EAI).
Headed by Kazuo Ogoura, former ambassador to South Korea, the Japanese delegation included Yoriko Kawaguchi, former minister of foreign affairs, Ichiro Aisawa of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Takeaki Matsumoto of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), both members of the Lower House of the Diet and former foreign ministers.
The 14-member South Korean delegation was headed by Ha Young-sun, chairman of the EAI and a professor emeritus of Seoul National University. The host delegation included Shin Kak-soo, former ambassador to Japan and currently chairman of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy's Center for International Law, Kim Se-yeon of the Saenuri party and Kim Yoong-hwan of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, both members of the National Assembly, and Sohn Yul, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University.
Power shift in Northeast Asia
In his opening address at the outset of the first half of the panel session, EAI Chairman Ha referred to a big power shift developing in Northeast Asia, and the subsequent changes in the environment surrounding Japan and South Korea. Noting that intergovernmental diplomacy between the two countries remains mired in dysfunction, Ha emphasized that the private sector should assume a larger role in breaking the stalemate.
Ha was followed by Ogoura, head of the Japanese delegation, who shared a similar perception of the geopolitical environment in Northeast Asia. Such being the case, individual citizens in both countries should address diverse bilateral issues as their own tasks without solely blaming the negative shift to media organizations and their own governments.
On behalf of the Korean panelists, Sohn Yul, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University, told the session that South Korea and Japan must coordinate their respective approaches toward China's attempt to create a new order in East Asia. To this end, it is important for both countries to separate the much-disputed differences in the perception of history from security and economic matters while putting restraints on the inclination toward excessive nationalism by the citizens themselves, Sohn said.
Representing the Japanese panelists, Yoshihide Soeya, a professor of political science and international relations at the Faculty of Law, Keio University, pointed to the finding of the joint opinion survey that a majority of the respondents in both countries are cognizant of the necessity to improve soured bilateral relations. Soeya said that Japan-South Korea relations "have passed the point of no return" and both would suffer substantially if bilateral relations should worsen further. As a prerequisite for the betterment of bilateral ties, Soeya insisted that ahead of "mutual trust," "empathy" must be restored first between the two peoples and to this end, expansion of people-to-people exchanges and dialogues is necessary.
In the ensuing discussion, Aisawa of the LDP commented that Japan and South Korea, which share the basic values of democracy, liberalism and market principles, must build good bilateral relations in order to counter China's ambition to establish a new order of its own design in both security and economic spheres.
How to overcome past legacies
Ogoura expressed his concern about the deterioration of public sentiment in both countries toward each other's country. Noting that there exists a gap between the two peoples in the perception of history, he observed that the Japanese believe we could overcome the difficult legacies from the past by talking about the future while the Koreans maintain that we could talk about the future only after overcoming past legacies.
"We, Japanese, tend to believe that the fact that we have built a free, democratic and peaceful country (after the end of the last war) is evidence of our overcoming past legacies. Maybe, this is not enough. It is necessary for the Japanese to continuously show to the people in neighboring countries our solid commitment to such efforts," he said.
Meanwhile, Yu Myung-hwan, former South Korean minister of foreign affairs and trade, told the session that the prevailing misconception about each other hinders the formation of strategic solidarity between Japan and South Korea. Both governments need a strong push from calm public opinion to facilitate such collaboration, he added.
Former Japanese Foreign Minister Kawaguchi said both countries could overcome past legacies by sharing a dream of creating a new world and a new region in this part of the world. She thus called on both countries to discuss their joint action to solve global or regional agendas, rather than bilateral issues.
Kenichi Matsumoto, a professor of the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Reitaku University, warned that any conflict based on nationalism is inclined to develop into war. By pointing to a cultural commonality between Japan and South Korea, he voiced a belief that both countries could solve nationalism-fueled confrontations by digging deep into this cultural common ground.
EAI Chairman Ha responded to Matsumoto's comment, and said incessant dialogue is indispensable if both countries are to terminate the vicious cycle of expanded reproduction of distrust and instead, introduce reproduction of common benefits on a progressive scale.
In the second half of the panel session, the panelists exchanged views about "How to improve relations between Japan and South Korea?"
Referring to the findings of the joint public opinion survey carried out in both countries before the bilateral private-sector dialogue, Hiroshi Komatsu, chief editorial writer of the major Japanese vernacular daily Mainichi Shimbun, said that the peoples of Japan and South Korea tend to have impressions based on false information, rather than facts, toward each other's country as they lack direct interchanges with each other. Media companies should consider their roles for correcting the inaccurate public images, said Komatsu, who was the Japanese keynote speaker on the subject.
His South Korean counterpart, Sunwoo Jung, chief editor for international news of the Chosun Ilbo national daily, stressed that the current soured relations between Japan and South Korea are attributable in large part to the influence of political leaders. Noting that the two countries mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of their diplomatic relations in 2015, Sunwoo said that Japan and South Korea should realize a meeting of their leaders on the occasion even if there are ill feelings toward each other country's leader.
Adverse feelings planned by media reporting
Among Japanese panelists, Soichi Tsukamoto, the Seoul bureau chief of Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK), stressed that media people should stop settling for easy news reporting that may plant mutually adverse feelings among the two countries' peoples.
Oh Young-whan, an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo, the leading South Korean daily, stressed that the two countries should discuss not only political issues but also problems closely linked to people's lives, such as recyclable energy sources, and a declining birthrate and an ensuing aging of society, so that new model relations of neighborliness can be established between Japan and South Korea.
Kim Joon, president of the South Korean chemical company Kyungbang Corp., was among those who actively aired frank views about long-standing problems between the two countries. He noted that many South Korean people argue that the two countries cannot talk about the future without reflecting on their past. "This is a limitation on the part of South Koreans," Kim said.
In winding up the discussion, the Japanese chair of the session Ogoura told the gathering that Japan-South Korea relations deserve a "world heritage" nomination as they have not fallen into a state of war over the past 400 years, adding that it is high time both countries signed a "no-war pledge."
Former South Korean Ambassador to Japan Shin, who served as the Korean chair of the session, pointed out four factors that have caused the deterioration of bilateral relations - the power shift resulting from an emerging China, the differences in perception of history, the territorial row and worsening public sentiment. Current bilateral relations are at their lowest level, though the two countries are to observe the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations next year, he regretted. "It is important to narrow the gap between the peoples of both countries in the sphere of perception, trust, understanding and emotion," he concluded.
The rest of the session was devoted to answering questions from the floor, among them, "What are the common interests of Japan and South Korea?", "Can emotional problems be solved rationally?" and "Why have nationalistic views grown among young people?"
In her closing remarks, Lee Sook-jong, president of the South Korean host organizers, the East Asia Institute, said her organization would carry out the joint opinion poll again, adding that the next forum should be convened in Tokyo next year.
Genron NPO President Kudo said prevailing public opinion, tainted by nationalistic inclinations, in both countries is making it difficult for the neighbors to advance intergovernmental diplomacy. "In such circumstances, well-informed people must discuss issues in an open arena and serve as a catalyst to create sound public opinion with the determination to solve problems by themselves," Kudo stressed.