Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.01.25

Complex Foreign Policy Questions Facing the New Abe Administration

In 2012, new leaders were elected in Japan, the United States, South Korea, China, and Russia. What will be Japan's relations with South Korea and China under their new leadership? These three countries are able to cooperate both economically and politically, and play major roles in promoting peace and prosperity in the world, not to mention in Asia. Historical issues, however, are of concern.

In the new year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga as a special envoy to South Korea to meet President-elect Park Geun-hye. Doing so indicated the Prime Minister's desire to strengthen amicable relations with that country under her leadership. Reportedly, Ms. Park thanked Mr. Nukaga for delivering the Prime Minister's invitation to have her visit Japan; she told him that "There are many issues that require cooperation between South Korea and Japan. The two sides must face history and pursue a future of reconciliation and cooperation." In this way, the new year saw a good beginning to Japanese-South Korean relations, but, notably, Ms. Park Geun-hye referred to history.

Ms. Park Geun-hye visited Japan in 2006, while she was head of the Grand National Party. At that time, she met then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, after a series of meetings with former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, President of House of Councilors Chikage Ohgi, President of House of Representatives Yohei Kohno, Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, and Foreign Minister Taro Aso. According to her autobiography, "Despair Trains Me and Hope Moves Me," Ms. Park Geun-hye stated that, although Japan and South Korea share common views on economic matters, foreign policy, and exchanges between the two countries, the two countries cannot advance even a single step, notwithstanding the limitless possibilities, unless they solve outstanding historical issues. (Her sentiments hereafter are from this book.)

Her attitude toward Japanese politicians reminds me of one stance in Japanese 'kendo' fencing, when the point of the sword is aimed at the eye of the opponent. She concluded that, having met many politicians in Japan, invariably, they were all armed with Japanese logic. She emphasized to Prime Minister Koizumi that, in sharing the common values of a liberal democracy and a free market economy, South Korea and Japan must cooperate; however, they cannot make progress given the obstacles between them, such as the issues of the Dokto [Takeshima] Islands, history textbooks, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, and comfort women. Prime Minister Koizumi responded that, despite the difficult issues between the two countries, they have made progress and hoped to deepen their friendship and goodwill. She saw this as his fudging of fundamental issues. Now, I have not examined whether these exchanges, as described in her autobiography, are indeed accurate records of the meeting, but, at least, they describe Ms. Park's own perception of what took place.

Ms. Park is a seasoned politician. She is skillful and rich in life's experience gained through many adversities, though one would never imagine what she had gone through from her elegant and poised demeanor. She played the part of the First Lady for her father President Park Chung-hee after her mother was shot and killed when Ms. Park was 22 years old. Five years later, after her father was assassinated, she battled defamation and character assassination of him emanating from the administration that succeeded him. In her dark days, she tried to clear her mind by keeping a diary and by reading, and she consoled herself by writing poems. She also read Buddhist sutra, and kept by her bedside, "'Essentials of the Zhenguan Period Government (records of sayings and deeds of Tang's Taizong)" and "Ming Xin BAO Jian (a collection of Confucian proverbs created during the Goryeo Dynasty)," which she read repeatedly. After the 1997 financial crisis, her own concern for her country brought her into the world of politics and, as a politician since then, she has encountered both rewards and hardships. While within the Grand National Party, she tried to reform the country but her failure resulted in her having to leave the party temporarily and against her will. After her return to the party, she became its Chairperson at the height of its unpopularity. During the 2006 campaign, a thug slashed Ms. Park's face, resulting in facial wound so massive and deep that, while trying to stop the bleeding, her fingers penetrated it. In 2005, President Roh Moo-Hyun, facing unpopularity that resulted in defeat in by-elections, reached out to the Grand National Party, in opposition, in an effort to form a grand coalition. Chairperson Park summarily declined that overture. Nevertheless, she sent birthday wishes to President Roh as he was leaving for overseas trip. His response was unexpected. As her autobiography describes it, she was taken aback by his very self-deprecating response. It was as if to say, "I gave him tender words, and his reaction was perverse, which is rather immature." This shows how she retained the upper hand, at least psychologically, even though she was the chairperson of the opposition party.

With regards to historical issues, China is basically on the same page as South Korea. Although, in this regard, figuring out the thoughts of General Secretary Xi Jinping may be important, in historical matters, it is the policies of the Chinese Communist Party that really count, leaving little room for General Secretary's personal views. In the new year, China welcomed South Korea's return to China of the Chinese arsonist who set fire to the Yasukuni Shrine, despite Japan's request to hand him over to Japan.

China has shown great interest in Ms. Park's victory in South Korea's presidential election. Chinese media reports and Internet reactions note that her favorite books are Chinese classics and that she is fluent in Chinese. They also look positively on her efforts to strengthen ties with China even during her election campaign. In addition, they point out that Ms. Park is reinforcing the focus on China by stressing that, soon after her election, Ms. Park met with the ambassadors from China, the United States, Russia, as well as Japan at the same time - unlike her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who only met with the ambassadors of Japan and the U. S. immediately post-election.

Apparently, Ms. Park studied Chinese on her own and she is rather fluent. Initially, she had aspired to be a French teacher and she has remarked that her diligent studies of English, French, and Spanish helped her in her studying Chinese by herself. When she first met then-General Secretary of the Communist Party Hu Jintao, she greeted him in Chinese; that brought a big grin to his face as he was pleasantly surprised. These are only a few examples of her interest in China, but there are many more stories.

Some say that Mr. Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party is anti-Japan while Ms. Park Geun-hye is pro-Japan. Such an overly simplistic view, however, does not reveal the truth. My hope is that the new Abe administration will cope wisely with deep-rooted historical issues and promote cordial relations with both South Korea and China.