Electoral politics and Korea-Japan relations
Recently, the controversy of the failure in signing an agreement with Japan on sharing intelligence information largely dominated the South Korean political discussion. The whole diplomatic fiasco ended with a sudden calling off by the Blue House an hour before the scheduled signing ceremony. Criticism was raised substantially afterwards among the general public and President Lee Myung-bak and his Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) were widely held responsible for this embarrassing occasion. No matter eventually who will be viewed as scapegoats accountable for this policy failure, there will be no winner in this matter.
Through carefully reading of the full text of the agreement recently released by MOFAT, it illustrates a contrasting picture with what the media and the public described as a second ``Eulsa Treaty.’’ It just covers marginally, with nothing more than the formal procedures of the sharing of classified military information, who will be given the rights to access the information, and the necessary action to protect the intelligence. Overstating the agreement as a formal military pact between Seoul and Tokyo by the local mass media only fundamentally deviated the direction of this ordinary military agreement and provoked the mass hysteria about Japanese colonialism in Korea. But, fusion of foreign issues and patriotism is not uncommon in Korean society especially during an election year.
Elections in South Korea usually act as a public mirror for politicians to reveal their stand either nationalistically or pro-U.S. or pro-Japan on foreign matters. Building an uncompromising anti-Japanese image always helps politicians to boost their popularity and public trust rapidly, while those who show unclear positions on colonial issues usually receive severe public condemnation.
Among all, Dokdo remains the most sensitive issue in the ROK-Japan relations. In 1996, conservative leader Kim Young-sam vigorously reacted to Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto’s claim of sovereignty over the disputed islands by staging military exercise, building a lighthouse, and suddenly calling off a summit with the Japanese leader. His hard-line credentials successfully impressed the voters and secured his party’s triumph ahead of key legislative elections in April.
Under the Koizumi administration in 2002, the Japanese Ministry of Education approved newly revised history textbooks which are perceived as a distortion of history and an attempt to gloss over Japan’s wartime atrocities. Progressive President Kim Dae-jung strongly condemned and called off a meeting with a delegation of Japanese lawmakers and the cultural exchanges between sisters’ cities and school visits were also cancelled. This negative perception on Japan coincides with the strong anti-Americanism built a constructive impact on Roh Moo-hyun’s electioneering in the 2002 South Korean presidential election.
Interestingly, the frequency of the Korean government’s responses is heavily influenced by the frequency of Korean media reporting. That means media drives arte influential in shaping politicians and public perception on anti-Japanese issues.
Reading from the previous elections, what we can conclude is integrity checking decisively altered voters’ primary electoral consideration and politicians also deliberately aroused this confrontation. Conservatives accuse the North Korea sympathizer (jongbuk) politicians of failing to stand firmly to protect the national interest and security: Progressives contrarily blame the conservatives for over-protecting the ROK-Japan alliance and turning a blind eye to the colonial and territorial conflicts with Japan for the sake of the U.S. interest. In the last few months, Korea politics is overwhelmed by this continuous rise of McCarthyism mixed with patriotic testing on every politician. However, excessive emphasizing this ``black-and-white’’ ideological cleavage in the media will not only distract the real policy debate on ROK-Japan affairs, but also introduce a further reinforcing the Cold War mentality and hindering the reconciliation on the Korean peninsula will also be resulted.
ROK-Japan relations in the last 5 years have been predominantly guided by the U.S. interest in the region. The outcome illustrates unilaterally leaning too close to the U.S. may not serve the best interests of Seoul. Perhaps, South Korea maintaining its long-term military relations with Japan should be similar to former President Roh Moo-hyun’s idea of the country as a ``balancer’’ in Northeast Asia. Under this rationale, signing an agreement to share classified military information with other countries shouldn’t be limited to Japan. It’s equally essential in extending this military cooperation initiated to other neighboring countries as well. This is why the Lee Myung-bak government should sign this agreement simultaneously and openly with Japan and China in order to avoid any unnecessary diplomatic misunderstanding.
Without doubt, remaining silent is not an appropriate reaction toward unpatriotic legislation. It’s usual for the general public to reject this agreement as their over-reacted sentiments are entirely framed by the opportunistic politicians and biased media reporting. The Blue House should bare the core responsibility for not officially passing this agreement onto the National Assembly for legislative discussion and failing to explain it clearly to society. But it is also equally important for voters to read between the lines on the framed message delivered by the politicians rationally so as to avoid unnecessary distraction on the policy debate.
The writer is a Ph.D. candidate in Korean studies at University of Sydney. His email address is email@example.com.