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November 21, 2013

Nationalism Cools Seoul's Relations with Tokyo, Warms Seoul-Beijing Ties

by Daniel Schearf

Controversy surrounds China's plan to build a stone monument to Korean independence fighter Ahn Jung-guen, who shot and killed imperial Japan's former prime minister and governor of Korea, Hirobumi Ito in 1909 in the northeast city of Harbin, where the monument is to be erected.
 
South Korean President Park Geun-hye requested the monument during a July summit visit to China and thanked Beijing's top policymaker this week in Seoul.
 
The move sparked a sharp exchange of words between Tokyo and Seoul.  Japanese officials said Tuesday that erecting a monument for someone they consider a "criminal" will be of no benefit for the relationship of the two countries.  South Korean officials said Tokyo should not make such comments, considering the country's imperial past.
 
The verbal sparring comes as relations between Tokyo and its neighbors sour. Meanwhile, China and South Korea are getting along well.
 
Seoul and Beijing routinely condemn Japanese lawmakers' visits to the Yasakuni shrine, which honors Japanese soldiers, including some from World War II that China and South Korea consider war criminals.
 
Some analysts say Chinese and South Korean nationalism is fueled, in part, by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plans to expand the role of Japan's self-defense forces amid ongoing disputes over island territory.
 
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Japan's Temple University, points out that such criticism against Japan, ironically, is helpful to Abe.
 
“Having China and Korea whack Japan in public, as they are doing, actually helps him in promoting his agenda.  Because, he can point to them and go 'see, this is what they're really like. We need to increase our military power, we need to change the constitution, we need to beef up our preparations,'” said Kingston.
 
Seoul and Beijing, enemies during the Korean War in the 1950s, are bonding somewhat over their mutual distrust of Japan, despite recent tensions of their own. 
 
South Korea also needs China's help to rein in North Korea on its nuclear weapons program.
 
In 2010, relations between the countries cooled when China refused to condemn North Korea for the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of an island.
 
Yuji Hosaka is a political science professor at Sejong University. He thinks that Seoul's efforts towards greater cooperation since the 2010 attacks have paid off; Beijing has become more openly critical of Pyongyang on the nuclear issue. 
 
Yuji points out that at time, China was helping and supporting North Korea.  However, since South Korea raised the nuclear issue, China’s view on North Korea has changed considerably.
 
South Korean President Park made Beijing her first visit in Asia after taking office, but has yet to schedule a summit with Abe, despite requests from Tokyo.
 
Jeff Kingston said that Seoul's warming relations with Beijing are primarily focused on trade, and are not indicative of a major shift in relations.  He also noted that Seoul and Tokyo maintain mutual political and defense ties with the United States.
 
“Seoul is not betting the entire future on China.  I think that they do have some reservations about China and its regional, hegemonic ambitions.  So, I don't think Seoul is in any danger of cutting its [Japan] ties. But, I think that for domestic political reasons, Park is [amplifying] the heat on the history issues. And, I think in a way, this is a bit of a dead end for her. And, I think Abe is also dead-ending on history issues,” said Kingston.
 
Kingston also said that despite Abe's platform, there is little upsurge in nationalism among the Japanese public. Most reject the revisionist history he promotes.
 
While President Park's reluctance to meet with the Japanese leader has won praise from her conservative party and nationalists, she also appears to be at odds with the South Korean public.
 
A survey in South Korea in September by the Asan Institute found that the majority want to see a summit between the Japanese and South Korean leaders, and for their countries to share military intelligence, especially on North Korea. South Korea abruptly abandoned that plan last year over worries of public reaction.
 
VOA Seoul Bureau Produce Youmi Kim contributed to this report.