Tokyo (AsiaNews) – For many analysts South Korea’s new President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Japan on 20-21 April is the beginning of a new era in the relations between the two countries. Although it might appear as a simple courtesy call since Mr Lee was coming home from his first state visit to the United States, in reality more political agreements were signed in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda than in Washington with President George W. Bush.
The four-day US visit was rich in pomp and ceremony and the South Korean leader got to spend two days at the presidential retreat in Camp David, an honour never bestowed upon a South Korean leader before, but the results from a South Korean stand point were few so much so that The Korea Times called it in “empty hospitality”.
By contrast in Tokyo, Mr Lee had long talks with the Japanese prime minister, a meeting with Emperor Akihito at the Imperial palace, an exchange with Japanese students on national television and a meeting with Korean nationals living in Japan.
Two months ago on the day he began his mandate (25 February) and before meeting any diplomat, Mr Lee expressed in a phone call to Mr Fukuda a desire to visit Japan soon. Since then officials from the two countries have worked overtime to prepare this summit which is seen as the start of a new era. The fact that the two leaders share a similar political and diplomatic outlook is at the root of their success.
In the joint press conference Mr Lee compared the new ties to a “deep-rooted tree which is not easily shaken by strong winds,” whilst Fukuda spoke of the strengthened cooperation for the peace and prosperity of North-East Asia and the world.
Despite his pragmatism Lee does not intend to sweep the past under the carpet but he also does not want it to govern Korean-Japanese relations. With Mr Fukuda by his side he said: “We cannot forget past history. However, we must not create barriers to the future by becoming consumed by that history.”
In order to bolster relations the two leaders signed three agreements with the economic one as the most important. Although South Korea has the 14th economy in the world and is number 4 in Asia, it is going through tough times right now.
Its balance of payments with Japan sports a US$ 30 billion deficit, due by and large to the previous administration’s politically motivated cold shoulder to bilateral economic relations. Under the new deal regular bilateral economic talks are to resume immediately.
A second agreement renews the two-nation shuttle diplomacy including regular and frequent summits between the leaders of the two countries. Former South Korean President Roh Moo-yung had stopped them unilaterally and whipped up anti-Japanese feelings among large segments of the population in order to buttress his declining popularity.
Finally, a third agreement calls for easy visas for young people from both nations to travel on their respective national holidays so that mutual understanding among younger generations can improve, thus making for better diplomacy.
At an international level the two countries plan to work together to tackle global problems like environmental degradation and help poor nations, especially in Africa.
Mr Lee has already been invited to attend as an observer the next G8 Summit scheduled for Hokkaido Island (Japan) which will focus on global warming.
Following a tradition that began in 1990, Lee Myung-bak invited Japanese Emperor Akihito to travel to Korea this year. He made the invitation during his visit to the Imperial Palace.
This time though the invitation took on a different tone, not only because of the cordial atmosphere, but also because the South Korean president put a date to the visit: “this year”. As he is wont to do the Japanese monarch said that his overseas visits are decided by the government. In the past no answer was given to the invitation.
But now conditions are more favourable and this for three reasons. First, because of Prime Minister Fukuda interpersonal relations are good. Secondly, since the 2002 World Cup millions of Koreans and Japanese travel to each others' countries each year. Lastly this year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Korea. It would be fitting for Japan's monarch to visit and mend fences for what was inflicted on South Korea during the reign of his father, Hirohito.
In 1992 Emperor Akihito visited China on the 20th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries. For The Korea Herald, in its editorial page, “The social and political environment of Korea in 2008 is far more favourable than that of China 16 years ago”. The invitation should thus not become a lost opportunity; better this year than in 2010, the centennial of Japan's takeover of Korea as a colony, a date that is likely to revive animosity.
For both leaders the 21 April summit was the first step on the path of diplomatic maturity. Sadly though nationalist undercurrents in both countries continue to stir emotions and cast a shadow over the two leaders’ brighter vision.