Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The gap between Korea, Japan and the US
Ushio - July 2007

When I lived full-time in Tokyo as a foreign correspondent in the mid-1980s, I used to visit South Korea quite frequently for my job. I enjoyed learning about the big contrasts between Tokyo and Seoul: the higher living standards in Japan, the fact that South Korean companies were eager, brash newcomers while Japanese firms were by then world leaders, the fact that Japan was a democracy while South Korea remained a military dictatorship. To an outsider, though, perhaps the most striking contrast was the difference in temperament, in emotional behaviour.

            National stereotypes are always risky, but they generally describe some part of the truth. The stereotype held by westerners about Japanese and Koreans is that the Japanese are more reserved people, less likely to show their emotions (rather like the English), and that Koreans are more temperamental. We Europeans use the word “Latin” to describe that more emotional behaviour, by which we mean that we associate such personalities with southern European countries such as Italy and Spain.

            One memory sums this up for me. In the mid 1980s I was in central Seoul standing outside the Chosun Hotel looking for a taxi. There was a big traffic jam. A traffic policeman was blowing his whistle and waving at a taxi-driver to try to make him move his car. The driver ignored him at first, and then shouted something back at the policeman. So the policeman walked over to the taxi-driver, whose window was open, and simply punched him through the open window.

            That anecdote came back to my mind when I visited Seoul recently. Of course, policemen probably behave differently now that South Korea is a democracy. But, talking to many people about the difficult negotiations with North Korea, I was struck by a new emotional contrast between Japan and Korea, one which seems to contradict my previous stereotype. It is the contrast between the Japanese view of North Korean abductions and the South Korean view.

            The abduction issue is a highly emotional topic in Japan. That is entirely understandable: if British people had been abducted by a nearby country and held for decades, then their fate and current situation would be hugely controversial in Britain too. It is easy to see why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government have taken a tough line with the North Koreans on this matter, refusing to agree to deliver more aid or remove trade sanctions until there is progress on the abductions—even if the North Koreans carry out their promises on denuclearisation.

            What is surprising, however, is how this sort of issue is viewed in South Korea these days. It is not surprising that the South Korean public does not care very much about Japanese feelings about abductions. But what surprises me is how little attention is given to the fact that the North Koreans have, over the past several decades, abducted many South Koreans—indeed, they abducted many more South Koreans than Japanese.

            Why have these roles become reversed? Both countries are now democracies, so the pressure of public opinion might be expected to have similar effects on both sides of the Tsushima Straits. But it doesn’t. It is the Japanese who have taken a highly emotional, even temperamental position, while the Koreans seem calm, wanting to use a long process of dialogue to achieve reconciliation with their northern neighbours.

            It is dangerous for an outsider to offer an opinion about such an emotional set of issues. But it seems to me desirable that Japan and South Korea should find ways to achieve closer political as well as cultural ties, and it is worrying that in recent years they seem to have moved further apart, both on this North Korean issue and over the broader questions about history. Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Aso, says he wants to build close relationships with all the democracies in the Asia-Pacific region, and is doing so with India and Australia. But that is not happening with Japan’s nearest democratic neighbour, South Korea.

            My view is that Japan and South Korea are both taking unrealistic positions on the North Korean issue. Japan’s position looks unrealistic, because it is very hard to imagine how North Korea is going to make any genuine concessions on the abduction issue. Some of the terrible things that have happened in recent years, such as the sending to Japan of human remains that turned out to have the wrong DNA, suggest that the North Korean regime does not know what happened to some of the abductees. Probably, this is because that brutal regime did not care. But that now means that the regime may well not know where those who have passed away are buried.

            So Japan is taking a tough position for correct emotional reasons but in practice that position is unlikely to succeed. It is just helping North Korea isolate Japan from the other countries involved in the six-party negotiations over the North’s nuclear weapons programme.

South Korea, though, is also being unrealistic in a different way. It seems to think that by providing generous humanitarian aid, and by seeking symbols of reconciliation such as railway links, it will eventually make it possible to have peace on the Korean peninsula and a gradual unification between the two countries. By ignoring immediate human-rights issues such as abductions, it hopes that over the next few decades there could be a general improvement in the human rights of the North Korean people. It has already resumed shipments of aid, even though there has been no progress on denuclearisation under the agreement signed with the North on February 13th.

But why should this work? The North Korean dictators surely know that if they allow their people more freedoms, more information and more economic opportunities, then the regime itself will be overthrown. The effect of South Korean aid is to delay that day, not to advance it, for the North Korean military control the use and distribution of all aid in their country. They are exploiting South Korean emotions and aspirations, rather than responding to them.

North Korea is a hard, perhaps impossible, country to deal with. But it is necessary at least to deal with it in a realistic way. And to achieve that, South Korea and Japan should be seeking ways to work together, not against each other.


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