Friday, August 24, 2012

If Only Japan and South Korea Were Schoolboys

(1)President Lee Myung-bak visits Dokto and later says that the Japanese Emperor must go to the independence movement’s martyrs’ grave and apologize from the heart if he wants to visit Japan.
(2)Prime Minister Noda dispatches a letter to President Lee and demands an apology for visiting Takeshima and demanding an apology.
(3)The South Korean Government decides that the letter does not deserve a reply since President Lee went to Dokto, not some imaginary place called Takeshima, and dispatches one of its counselors at its Embassy in Tokyo to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
(4)MOFA does not allow the South Korean counselor to enter its premises, whereupon the South Korean Embassy resends the letter to MOFA, this time by special delivery.

And so it goes. In the meantime, the Japanese MOFA Minister for the first time since South Korea seized the Liancourt Rocks uses the words “illegal occupation” to describe the South Korean presence there, which has evoked a suitably negative response from the South Korean MOFAT spokesman. There are real world consequences, as the Japanese MOF apparently is indefinitely suspending a planned purchase of South Korean JGBs and also is leaning towards letting the expansion of the swap arrangement expire. The blowback in Japan has spilled over to the private sector as a Han-ryu drama starring an actor who participated in the recent Dokto swim-a-thon relay has been taken away from the Japanese airwaves, possibly for good.

A few points:

I don’t remember the Japanese government ever reacting like this towards South Korea (or China for that matter). The Japanese government is reacting because it can; the financial arrangements (and the Chiang Mai Agreement behind the swap arrangement) directly benefit South Korea, not Japan (or China). The government’s shadow also looms behind the han-ryu drama pullout, since land-based broadcasters enjoy the use of public airwaves at below-market cost.* I think that the government’s action is unwise and is actually the consequence of weakness and an inability to properly frame the story on its behalf—to show determination on the security and diplomatic fronts but not allowing it to spill over to the realm of non-national security public goods—but it’s a “normal” reaction. Notice has been served.

That said, I find this war of words genuinely funny. Seriously, it’s hard not to see the You stop it, no you stop it, no you… schoolboy war of words in this. Your heart is racing, your stomach begins to churn and it’s getting harder to keep your hands under control and you really want your teacher to notice or the end-of-recess bell to ring to put an end to it all without your losing face. Of course they’re not really children and America is not coming to mediate and there is no bell… and they’ll wind it down somehow. But they’re not children and that means that there will be real consequences. Some of the asymmetry has been lost, and the new “normal” will be less pleasant for both parties, particularly for South Korea.

* I do not believe that the media group pulled the drama under government pressure. It probably feared the inevitable public backlash and possibly picketing or worse by the right-wing. But the fact remains that its broadcasting license and cheap use of the airwaves ultimately depend on government approval, and that puts it in a more vulnerable position than a paper publication.


Jan Moren said...

Except that when schoolboy arguments turn stupid the result is nosebleeds and bruises. When country leaders do the same, the result is maiming and violent death.

If the maimed and dead people were the same that started the fight - or financed it - it'd be one thing, but that seems to never be the case. Funny thing, that.

Jun Okumura said...

Yes, Jan. And we may be looking at the first punches right now. I think that for now, that will be that. South Korea has more brands to protect in Japan, somewhat like Japan does in China. South Korea needs Japan on North Korea more than Japan needs South Korea. (The different approaches to their respective abduction issues are a good example.) I suspect that this altercation had a liberating effect on the political class as a whole. It would be such an irony if it turned out that this was the tipping point along Japan’s path to a “normal nation” that Ichiro Ozawa had wished for.