Tense relations between South Korea and Japan will get better under newly-minted Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in Tokyo, according to a much-respected former president of South Korea.
Following a recent address at the National Press Club here, Kim Dae Jung, who served as South Korean president from 1997-2002, told me that he knew Fukuda, and that “the atmosphere is likely to be improved” with his succession to Shinzo Abe as prime minister.
The 81-year-old politician known throughout his country as “DJ” recalled that the historical tension between his country and Japan was “quite good” during his presidency. Kim Dae Jung made a state visit to Japan and received an apology from the Japanese government for occupation of the Korean peninsula before and during World War II.
But, he quickly added, relations between Tokyo and Seoul “dramatically deteriorated” since he left office. “Once they made the apology,” the former president noted, Japan began to talk about “other things.” He was specifically referring to textbooks in Japanese schools which teach that Japan invaded Korea as part of a campaign “to liberate East Asian countries from the colonial world” and the regular visits of former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial to Japan’s war dead which is also a symbol of militarism to other Asian nations. (Koizumi’s successor Abe visited the shrine publicly before becoming prime minister, but never publicly after assuming the office; one popular joke in Tokyo was that Abe “kept a locker” at Yasukuni).
Fukuda has promised not to visit the shrine and Kim Dae Jung feels that is a step in the right direction toward healing strained relations between the two countries.
As Japan welcomed new leadership in Fukuda last week, South Korea will elect a new President in December to succeed lame duck incumbent Roh Moo-hyun, who belongs to Kim Dae Jung’s party. All signs point to former Seoul Mayor and Hyundai chief executive officer Lee Myung-bak, nominee of the opposition Grand National (conservative) Party.
Known throughout the world as an opponent of South Korea’s military regime that ruled from 1960 until the mid-1980’s, Kim Dae Jung escaped assassination in 1973 when he was kidnapped in Tokyo — allegedly by agents of the Koirean Central Intellligence Agency — and tied with weights on a boat in the Sea of Japan. But when Japanese shore patrol helicopters appeared, Kim’s kidnappers released him. Later, the former congressman and opposition candidate for President returned to South Korea, made three more races for President, and was finally elected in 1997. For his “Sunshine Policy” of opening relations to North Korea, Kim won the Nobel Prize.