When new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda visited Korea on his first overseas trip since taking office 50 days ago, he must have known perfectly well that issues between the two neighboring countries extend to both the past and the future. He touched on the past only a little by bringing with him several old Korean books which were seized by Japan during its colonial rule, and both he and his host conveniently chose “forward-looking” attitudes toward their bilateral issues.
Noda returned five of some 1,205 volumes of the Joseon Kingdom’s “Uigwe,” or records of palace events, which Japanese colonialists had taken from royal libraries here to their homeland. He described the action as an effort “to promote cultural exchanges” between the two countries. The rest of these books will be delivered to Korea before the end of the year as the two governments agreed as part of moves to clear historical legacies.
Seoul did not expect much from the visit of Noda, the fifth Japanese head of government that President Lee Myung-bak has met since he took office in 2008, but the two leaders’ agreement to increase their currency swap to $70 billion from the present $13 billion was a remarkable move toward stronger financial cooperation. Seoul also confirmed the Noda administration’s enthusiasm for a Korea-Japan free trade agreement, also dubbed an economic partnership agreement (EPA), as early as possible, a matter on which Korea prefers a step-by-step approach.
Lee assessed that Japanese businesses were increasing their investment in parts and materials industries in Korea and making orders in growing volumes, moving toward a more balanced bilateral trade. Noda expressed his hope for an early resumption of EPA negotiations, which broke down since the sixth round in 2004.
Both governments recognize the need for a bilateral free trade pact, but two things have interfered with smooth progress of negotiations. One is occasional outbursts of antagonism over Dokdo and other historical issues often caused by reckless remarks and behavior by prominent Japanese figures touching on the nerves of Koreans. The other is frequent government changes in Tokyo since the late 2000s, which has considerably weakened overall political leadership.
Tokyo officials suspect that Korea-Japan EPA is an unpopular subject in Seoul where it is considered to bring more benefits to Japan than Korea. But President Lee and administration officials believe a “win-win” framework is possible to achieve shared prosperity. If the governments of the two countries strive to strengthen their partnership in an ever-turbulent global economic environment with an EPA or other bilateral arrangement, what is essential is restraining unreasonable historical claims and effective political leadership.