If we start with the single positive, then I could not have been any more correct in my prediction. When I wrote a month or so ago to expect relations in Northeast Asia to get worse, I left some room for improvement in the new year as a hedge. However, President Lee’s recent comments about the Japanese emperor are probably going to ensure relations between the ROK and Japan will remain a little chilly for a while yet, suggesting that I should have gone with my better instincts.
Lee’s recent visit to Dokdo rubbed people up the wrong way mainly because Lee at one stage was seen to be someone who could help the two countries come together in practical ways through “quiet diplomacy.” However in the last year President Lee has authorized the building of an expensive naval pier near Dokdo capable of harbouring the ROKN’s powerful KDX-III Aegis-equipped destroyers, ostensibly to fend off a Japanese attack (Because they oh so have the DPRK under control compared to Japan with its zero marines?!), agreed to push forward with a military agreement that would benefit South Korea more than Japan, suspended it, turned around to promote a military pact instead with China, pushed forward again on the aforementioned pact with the Japanese, and then cancelled it 20 minutes before the signing, citing history issues with Japan all the way. Now he has in the space of one week become the first South Korean president to land on Dokdo, played political football with the Japanese emperor, and then authorized the ROK Marines to take part in a regular defensive exercise designed to simulate an attack on Dokdo by a “hypothetical enemy,” an extremely rare if not unprecedented action. To put this last development into perspective, the ROK does not always exercise in response to real and deadly provocations by the DPRK. This is all in the background of the president’s Saenuri governing party stating that Japan’s ongoing assertion of sovereignty over Dokdo can be interpreted as Japan not having given up its colonial intentions and desire for invasion of the Korean peninsula.
Nevertheless it will be the comments about the emperor and not Lee’s Dokdo landing and posturing that will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many Japanese, irrespective of whether they were expressed for cynical electoral gain or not. On Tuesday President Lee essentially told the Japanese emperor in rather coarse language to not bother visiting Korea unless he was willing to come with a heartfelt apology, and not just “deep regret” (To get down and grovel?). In 1990 at a palace dinner the emperor expressed “deep regret” at Japan’s colonization of Korea to the ROK president. Essentially Lee was belittling this initial expression of goodwill. It may be that semantically speaking such a statement is “insufficient” from the Korean point of view. However one does not usually bring about greater ‘reflection’ in a person or a nation (if that is your true aim) by belittling the intermediate steps along the way. If Noda was disinterested in revisiting historical issues in December of last year, he is certainly going to be less so now, as will his successors, irrespective of their political and ideological persuasion.
The problem is that the Japanese emperor himself is no right-wing bigot requiring further “reflection.” As demonstrated by his 2002 comments that his family had Korean blood, the emperor has in the past been quite sensitive and interested in the two countries mending relations. He has always cultivated a refined and peaceful image and has tried to stay out of politics believing that that is a matter for politicians (as per the spirit of the post-war constitutional system – technically he is not even the Japanese head of the state, thus a full-throated apology would be of no ‘legal’ importance). The emperor, along with the rest of the imperial family, was one of the few institutions/people to come out of 3.11 last year looking good, along with the SDF and the guy who ignored TEPCO orders to stop pumping seawater into the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. His majesty is, unfortunately, old and ailing and unable to fulfill all of his normal responsibilities.
President Lee himself invited the emperor on at least one, if not two, occasions to come visit South Korea during his presidency, including on the 100 year commemoration of Japan’s annexation of Korea. Despite there being absolutely no request by the Japanese side to permit the emperor to visit South Korea, Lee has with his statement unilaterally and unceremoniously withdrawn his initial offer. The irony is that the emperor may well have had more than “deep regret” to express had he been able to visit without conditions being applied. The prospects for such a visit, by the current or the future emperor, have worsened considerably due to Lee’s unnecessary politicization of both the role and the person.
If it was just this statement a number of people in Japan would be left bewildered and annoyed. But given everything else that has happened in the last year with ROK-Japan relations, this could leave as much of a lingering stain on relations as Jiang Zemin in 1998 essentially dressing down the Japanese emperor over historical issues at a state dinner meant to celebrate the first ever visit by a Chinese head of state. The disappointment will be all the more palpable because much was expected of Lee in 2008, and Japan since the end of the Abe administration has generally been (more) careful to not provoke anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea. While the Noda administration has not been blameless in terms of the management of these issues, the wounds of the last year of cynical and unnecessary provocations by Lee will be deeper than just the brittle and vain pride of Japan’s conservative politicians.
* If one was to offer some contrary evidence to my initial prediction that things would get worse you could point to the end of the month negotiations between the DPRK and Japan as a potential positive, especially as Kim III seems to be taking more after his grandfather than his father. It also seems that at the CCP “summer camp” at the Beidaihe seaside resort there seems to have been a definitive decision by the Chinese side to avoid any military confrontation over the Senkaku Islands given the potential internal instability during a crucial leadership transition period any escalation could lead to. Let’s see if the PLA obliges in terms of rhetoric and action.