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Ex-Japanese envoy to Seoul on ROK foreign policy, bilateral ties, comfort women issue, more

(Voice: December 2015 – pp. 78-85)


 Following is the gist of an interview with Masatoshi Muto, Japanese ambassador to the ROK from 2010 to 2012.


 Q: In a speech during her visit to the U.S. in October, President Park Geun-hye said that the ROK’s participation in the TPP will benefit Korean-American companies. Is this because of fear of improved competitiveness of Japan’s exports?


 Muto: There had been strong criticism in the ROK of how the government handled this issue. Since Japan joined the TPP talks, there have been increasing calls in for South Korea to participate as well. Park has now indicated willingness to join, but she is being criticized for acting “too late.”


 Q: Why is the ROK in a rush now?


 Muto: The ROK is very dependent on external trade. Japan’s having an advantage in dealing with the TPP nations in trade rules on investment, tariffs, and so forth will mean even fiercer competition, considering the ROK is already at a disadvantage due to the strong won and weak yen.


 Q: How will admitting South Korea to the TPP benefit the U.S., since it already has a free trade agreement (FTA) with the ROK?


 Muto: For the U.S., the significance of the TPP is that it will set the trade and investment rules in the Asia-Pacific region. It is important to make universal rules for fair and open trade and investment in the world through the TPP. Therefore, it is necessary for as many countries sharing common values as possible to join the TPP.


 Q: Is the ROK too China-leaning?


 Muto: The ROK today is in an advantageous geopolitical position. The Park administration should make full use of this advantage to conduct its diplomacy strategically.


 The main purpose of Park’s recent visit to the U.S. was to change the perception in Washington that the ROK is leaning toward China and affirm that South Korea is a friend of the U.S., but she was not fully successful. If the ROK wants to have good relations with China, it should first build good relations with Japan and the U.S. Then China will have to be more considerate in dealing with the ROK.


 Q: Do you think it is possible for the ROK to rectify its policy toward China and restore good relations with Japan?


 Muto: I don’t think President Park will move any closer to China. She must have learned many “lessons” during her recent U.S. trip. I think she is beginning to understand that the ROK’s excessive closeness to China worries other countries.


 Q: The comfort women issue is the greatest obstacle preventing the improvement of Japan-ROK relations. In your book “Nikkan Tairitsu no Shinso [The Truth about the Japan-ROK Conflict],” you said the Teitaikyo [Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan], which erected the comfort women statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, has greatly influenced South Koreans’ perception of history.


 Muto: That’s the biggest problem. The Teitaikyo generalized isolated incidents and eventually created the current image of the comfort women. The situation in the ROK is such that even knowledgeable people cannot say this is wrong.


 For example, when Japan created the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995, the ROK government had commended this effort at first. However, the Teitaikyo’s fierce reaction made the government refrain from cooperating openly.


 Q: How can a private group like the Teitaikyo exercise that much influence?


 Muto: Its leaders are mostly graduates of the Ewha Women’s University; so they have very strong political connections.


 Q: In August 2014, Asahi Shimbun admitted it had filed false reports on the comfort women issue over the years. Do you think Asahi bears serious responsibility for making this a serious bilateral issue?


 Muto: It lent credence to the Teitaikyo’s claims.


 Q: You said in your book that rather than focusing on the issue of whether there was coercion in the recruitment of the comfort women, Japan should point out the Teitaikyo’s misrepresentation of facts to the world.


 Muto: Japan should be aware that the international community is sympathetic to the comfort women from a humanitarian standpoint. Since the Teitaikyo is trying to make coercion by the Japanese military a foregone conclusion, it is better to point out its misrepresentation of facts.


 Even ordinary educated people in Japan who are not rightists are now beginning to realize that Teitaikyo is the main obstacle to a solution to the comfort women issue. Some people in the ROK are also saying the Teitaikyo is “going too far.”


 Q: How should the Abe administration deal with the comfort women issue?


 Muto: The key to a solution is that the ROK government should make up its mind to take the necessary step. Although Japan cannot possibly accept legal responsibility, it is still important to resolve this issue. First, it should set the record straight with regard to historical facts. It should make the international community and the ROK recognize the efforts made by Japan so far, such as the Asian Women’s Fund. In addition, it needs to do something to heal the pain of the aging former comfort women. These steps are necessary for Japan to become a “respected” country in the world. If it wants to exercise leadership in the international community from now on, it should prevent the ROK and China from using the history issues to attack Japan at will.


 Q: A joint opinion poll conducted by Nikkei and the ROK’s JoongAng Daily in May showed that 55% of Japanese and 79% of South Koreans think the bilateral relationship is “bad” or “very bad.”


 Muto: I would like to note that in this survey, 67% of Japanese said both sides are to blame for the bad relations, while 63% of South Koreans said Japan is at fault. The problem is South Koreans have the mistaken notion that “Japan is to blame for everything bad.” The ROK media also perpetuate this line, so the people have come to believe this.


 Q: But you also said that the South Koreans’ sentiment toward Japan is not all that negative.


 Muto: When South Koreans are asked to choose whether they like or dislike Japan, they will probably choose “dislike” just to go along with people around them. Even though they say that in public, deep in their heart, they are attracted to Japan. As a matter of fact, the number of South Korean visitors to Japan in August increased by 55.5% over the same month last year.


 Q: How was Prime Minister Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II received in the ROK?


 Muto: President Park reacted positively to a certain extent, so the South Korean media also jumped on the bandwagon. Media had actually been thinking that a frigid Japan-ROK relationship is not good, but they just could not change their tune openly.


 As seen in this case, President Park is the only person who can ameliorate the South Koreans’ anti-Japan sentiment at present. It’s all up to her to say: “We must have a good bilateral relationship.” (Summary)

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