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A different sort of Japan

July 18,2019
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Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko, right, speaks to journalists after a cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo, July 16. [AP/YONHAP]
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Kim Dong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

We need to look into the minds of Japanese politicians attacking the Korean economy. We can properly respond when we know the enemy. It is noteworthy that they are the post-war generation born after the Pacific War. They are passive about repenting and apologizing for the past. In addition to the lack of education on history, they seem to think apologies don’t work. They learned from past Japanese prime ministers.

Japanese prime ministers repeatedly bowed their heads because of history. The beginning was the Kono Statement in 1993, the first-ever apology for wartime sex slavery. And apologies continued. Prime Minister Domiichi Murayama issued a special statement for the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in 1995, and Keijo Obuchi issued a document titled “A keen repentance and apology from the heart” in 1998. Junichiro Koizumi visited the Seodaemun Independence Park and bowed his head in 2001. Shinzo Abe visited the National Cemetery in 2006. Yukio Hatoyama knelt at the Seodaemun Prison in 2017.

Korea has responded cautiously. The memorial dedicated by Koizumi is nowhere to be found as the park was renovated. But Hatoyama said Japan must apologize until the victims say it is enough. But the post-war generation shakes their heads. No matter how they apologize, Korea thinks it’s not sincere, they say.

The post-war generation experienced the rise and fall of Japan. They spent their youth with pride as Japanese economy thrived in the 1970s and 80s. After the “two lost decades,” however, the place for the second largest economy was taken by China in 2010, and Korea has now become the 12th largest economy in the world. The relative sense of deprivation made them feel helpless and threatened. Unlike the pre-war generation that perceived Korea as a victim of history that needed to be helped, the post-war generation considers Korea as a rival to suppress.

The nervousness grew into the invasion of the Korean economy. The critical blow was the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on wartime forced labor. Japanese politicians claim that it was a crisis of trust that shook the foundations of the Korea-Japan Basic Treaty, in which Japan offered $500 million to help development of the Korean economy. Abe said that when it was clear that the promise between countries was not kept, it is natural to assume that trade management rules will also be violated. In opinion polls in Japan, voices justify Tokyo’s export ban on Korea. It is expected the retaliatory offensive will intensify after Sunday’s Upper House election.

President Moon Jae-in mentioned how Korea drove out the Japanese invasion in the 16th century with 12 ships and warned that the Japanese economy would suffer more damage. But Japan seems to be determined for an extended war, as Abe’s cronies suggest. Japanese Economic Minister Hiroshige Seko, who is leading the economic offensives, has pledged that he would sacrifice himself for Abe. He said the export ban was not something to be negotiated and that he has no intention to withdraw. Liberal Democratic Party’s security research head Itsunori Onodera, who had been a defense minister, openly said that Japan’s relations with the current Korean administration would never improve.

How should the Moon administration respond? Frontal attacks are a bad policy. Instead, we must listen to Japan’s complaints through diplomacy. Diplomacy is an advanced political act of managing external markets and winning foreign minds. Just we appease North Korea, we should persuade the Abe government with a stance of tolerance. Emotional boycotts or anachronistic anti-Japanese sentiment cannot bring Japanese people to our side. The rational and strategic approach is the only way for the national interests.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 17, Page 30