South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took it to another level today (August 14, on the eve of Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945) when he told a gathering of educators that “(the Emperor) wants to visit Japan, but I said (to the Japanese side) to come if he would visit the people who died in the independence movement and apologize from his heart.” He specifically cast disdain on the phrase that the Emperor used when he met then President Roh Tae-woo. Lest anyone think that Lee was somehow unaware that there was no chance that the Japanese side would meet his very public demand, he appears to have foregone the use of respectful language if the wording common to all the Japanese media translations is to be trusted, a startling breech of protocol and show of disrespect towards a quasi-head of state. It’s not quite KNCA, not even Hugo Chaves, but it’s still pretty rude.
The markers keep moving from the South Korean side, and this is unlikely to stop until its national myths are adopted wholesale on the other side of the “Japan” Sea. The typical Japanese response has been to make the minimum concession necessary to paper over the incident until the next incident flared up, raising demands for yet another round of verbal ransom.
I don’t think that it’s going to work this way anymore. Lee has jumped the shark this time, and there is no way that the domestically embattled Noda administration could do anything by way of meeting him even half-way. More important, Japan has changed as well. The mixture of collective guilt and sense of shared victimhood and older brother benevolence is about to all but vanish with the passing of the guard. The under-sixty leadership of the DPJ, LDP, and regional movements and their subalterns by and large (though not exclusively) share an assertive outlook. If still milquetoast in comparison to that of their regional counterparts, it should be more than sufficient to compel them to project and/or support responses that will at a minimum ensure that the bilateral political relationship will remain at a new low for a considerable period of time.
So what will be the consequences? First, expect all efforts to enhance the formal relationship will be put on hold for the indefinite future. No Japan-South Korea FTA. No Japan-China-South Korea FTA. No Japan-South Korea General Security of Military Information Agreement. But these weren’t moving before the latest Takeshima/Dokto flare-up, only the Japanese side was reluctant to admit it. No more. Which brings me to the second point: the Japanese response.
Look to Japan to give a serious push to a Japan-China FTA. I suspect that the Chinese authorities will be inclined to oblige, if only to encourage Japan to take up a greater stake in the bilateral relationship. And a gain for China is perforce a loss for the United States. Look to Japan to edge ever so cautiously towards North Korea—or rather, North Korea to attempt to play off Japan against South Korea, while a divided Korea looks increasingly to be in their mutual interests.
All this is not in the best interests of the Japanese and Korean people, or so I think. But that appears to be the baseline scenario.