Kudo's Blog;Seoul Debate Provides Clues for Breakthrough in Japan-S. Korea Impasse

July 22, 2014

By Yasushi Kudo
President of The Genron NPO

The just-ended 2nd Japan-South Korea Future Dialogue forum in Seoul was quite different from the first meeting a year ago, in that the participants from both countries avoided emotional confrontations and attempted to find common ground for forward-looking rapprochement.

The findings of the 2nd Japan-South Korea joint opinion survey, which were released prior to the Seoul meeting, were a strong indicator. The survey shows that despite the continued deterioration of public sentiment toward each other's countries, there emerged strong voices from a majority of respondents in both countries, which called for rectification of the present impasse in bilateral relations.

During the one-day Seoul debate, one of the South Korean panelists, himself a journalist, overly criticized the South Korean media industry for inflaming animosity with biased reporting to win viewers and readers by utilizing anti-Japanese public sentiment. A South Korean business leader sternly rebuked the participating South Korean politicians by asking what they have actually done to solve the problems between Japan and South Korea.

From blame game to soul-searching

Such soul-searching among South Koreans was a clear departure from the blame game of the recent past. Indeed, many participants in the Seoul meeting, both Japanese and South Korean, were able to free themselves from an emotional standoff and re-examine the current situation of bilateral relations in a coolheaded and forward-looking manner.

At this meeting, the Japanese and South Korean participants also shared another point, that is, the huge loss of mutual benefits resulting from the bilateral antagonism.

In the wake of the rapid power shift in Northeast Asia caused by an emerging China and the comparative decline of the influence of the United States, Japan and South Korea face major changes in the environment surrounding them. Yet, both countries are unable to adjust their strategies to the new reality appropriately as they are mired in shortsighted bilateral confrontations.

In other words, Japan and South Korea should have cooperated with each other to defend their mutually shared interests, including economic ones, or to explore new opportunities in the face of the changing environment in Asia. Therefore, it is no surprise that many participants in the Seoul meeting from both countries argued that Japan and South Korea could enjoy big mutual benefits if they could re-establish cooperative ties and put aside the futile antagonism.

By witnessing such a positive atmosphere at the Seoul meeting, I sensed that this channel of dialogue is ready to move to a next, higher-level of communication.

Now, it is Japan's turn to come up with a vision and action plan to achieve this in the face of the ongoing major changes in Northeast Asia. Regrettably, intergovernmental dialogue with its neighbors remains stalled and serious debate on this pressing agenda is yet to start in Japan.

All the more reason, then, that the channels of dialogue in the private sector, like the Japan-South Korea Future Dialogue, work as a catalyst to achieve a breakthrough in the stalled governmental diplomacy.

My conviction is that we could create sound, forward-looking public opinion by promoting private-sector debate in a way open to the general public or in a way seeking the participation of ordinary citizens, which eventually would help to normalize governmental diplomacy.