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Abe’s summer may be over

Aug 14,2019
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Lee Byong-chul
The author is an assistant professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies of Kyungnam University in Seoul.

The summer in Kyoto when I visited three weeks ago was hot and humid as I walked out of the train station via the Kansai International Airport —as if hot July rain stopped drenching the earth just then. I could feel the light breeze on my face, which smelled a bit familiar to me. Seen out of the taxi window, the sky was overcast, but the night street looked quiet and neat. The trees along the road were rinsed with the summer rain of Kyoto.

Friends of mine in the time-honored city welcomed me warmly as usual, in the midst of the diplomatic row between Korea and Japan over wartime history and the removal of Korea from Japan’s “white list” of countries that benefit from minimum trade restrictions and procedures.

Korea’s confrontations with Japan have fallen to arguably the lowest level since the normalization of their relations in 1965. The tit-for-tat trade war is so much deeper — and more dangerous — than you think. They are on a collision course — like a runaway car — fueled by showboats, populists and nationalists, and incorrectly amplified by social media in both countries. People on the street not only in Korea but also in Japan know that these are things that cannot change overnight.

But at a tiny yet clean Japanese restaurant, the gravity of the academically cheerful discourse over dinner naturally moved to a worsening relationship between the historical rivals.

Much worried, my Japanese diners took very pessimistic views about the uncertainties of the relations between the liberal Moon Jae-in government of Korea and the extreme right-wing Shinzo Abe cabinet of Japan. Releasing a breath, one of them at the low dining table pointed out that there would be no exit to an era of common peace and prosperity, simply because Japanese Prime Minister Abe has no particular reasons to first talk to President Moon who, from Abe’s perspective, looks less willing to come closer to Japan.

To the contrary, according to these Japanese Korea watchers, the hawkish prime minister, who is eager to amend Article 9 of the Constitution possibly through a vote on the issue in 2020 shortly after the Tokyo Summer Olympics, has more reasons to crush the Moon government politically and economically, by hook and by crook, instead of opening space for dialogue at all levels. I took them seriously.

Through dinner conversations and newspapers, I learned about the sound of silence that even in the Japanese intellectual circles — such as tenured professors and think-tank experts who I assume have the guts to say what they think is right — the conscientious voices of these pundits can hardly be heard when discussing the troubled relations of the two countries.

The inconvenient truth is that the trusted voices in search of rationality and universality have already been silenced by those with an ideologically blind faith or bigotry under the banner of the Rising Sun Flag. At the same time, the voices are turning into the utterances of a parrot. All of sudden, it did cross my mind: why strangle a parrot?

Abe’s determination to end the unsettling relations with the Seoul government will remain intact. One of the diners alerted me to the possibility that more “laser-like sanctions” would be made in the technically sensitive field where Japan considers it superior to Korea — as if the ultra-right-wing prime minister already decided to bet his political future on burning the bridges of no return one by one. It is not obvious that ratcheting up the trade restrictions would produce better results, but Abe’s Japan is, to be sure, coming in different shades of the world.

The cliché is: Abe’s Japan struggles to flee from history without a genuinely deep remorse for the numerous Korean victims of the Japanese atrocities made long ago, an obvious ignorance of history.

While Abe could angle for an escape from that history by eradicating all vestiges of General Douglas MacArthur occupying Japan from the new imperial era of ‘Reiwa’ — signifying order and harmony — he has a good chance to get on the right side of history. At what point, then, will the turning point be made in the conflict between Moon and Abe, both poor conversationalists?

We know that neither the propaganda nor the polls could answer this question. Even if the bilateral relationship is at its worst, animosity toward each other would gradually evaporate unless Korea intends to revoke the 1965 Basic Treaty to normalize their relations and Japan hopes to pour cold water on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The never-ending feud, after all, will disappear, like cicadas that would die at the end of the summer. When it does, we will stop and think about how to go on from there.