Parents of Megumi Yokota, abducted to North Korea in 1977, are holding her daughters photos.

Winter 2011, I was backpacking across Japan. On my way on the train to Nikko, the town known for the UNESCO World Heritage site Nikko Toshogu Shrine, I was accompanied by an elderly lady and her daughter who were in the same direction. Since Nikko was not exactly the most popular tourist destination, they were curious about me and we started to chat. Let me recount what the lady and her daughter said.

“That’s so brave of you to travel to Nikko all alone! Koreans surely are outgoing. I bet that’s because they serve in the military.”

“I know! the Japanese kids are weak nowadays. They are so ‘amai’

 In fact, I had not yet served my duty back then; nonetheless, they continued with their Japan-Korea comparative analysis within their knowledge. The ladies were very nice, and one of them even gave me a book she was reading as a token of our time together when we parted.

‘Amai,’ (甘い) in its original sense, means that something tastes sweet. However, depending on the context, the meaning changes to describe someone being indolent, clueless, or not exactly keen to deal with difficult situations. In that sense, there were times when I had a general impression that the Japanese really were amai: those dorky costume players all over Akihabara and Harajuku; and their typical ignoranceㅡor, at best, an extremely simpleton perspectiveㅡ toward its overseas neighbors. (“Oh my, North Korea and South Korea used to be one nation?” says a person in the introduction of Mr. Mamoru Ikehara’s「Ready to Die, and Wrote to Korea, Koreans」) The Japanese overall, content with their near-perfect welfare society built upon their little islands, seemed leisurely in the midst of cherry blossoms of Kyoto, uninterested in the outside world rapidly changing among the rise of China, the economic meltdown in the West, et cetera. Albeit the whole Abenomics frenzy, that was how I felt Japanese were like when it came to their popular attitude towards foreign affairs.

So are the Japanese really amai, as opposed to their tough and sensitive next door Koreans, always on alert of North Korea and the power dynamics over their conflicted land? Are Koreans so hard-disciplined by their rigorous draft system? I would have said yesㅡuntil a series of recent diplomatic events caught my attention.

The Japanese foreign ministry skillfully employed a strategy to thaw its relation with Pyongyang by making a deal to lift its trade sanctions against North Korea in return of re-investigating the Japanese abduction cases. The news was taken by surprise in South Korea, whose government believed it was entitled to get informed of everything which involves the 36th parallel-and-beyond. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs instantly expressed discontent of being ‘left out’ of this deal, although the Japanese and North Korean officials have been openly meeting in Stockholm since last month leading to the decision, and the South Korean diplomats knew of this the whole time. While the government was bitching about Japan not being “transparent” enough, I could not help but wonder who really was incompetent and, essentially, amai.

It was not so hard to imagine that something like this could happen, considering Mr. Shinzo Abe had built up his political career by actively advocating for bringing back these Japanese abductees. Japan is a sovereign nation with full rights to make independent deals with another official member of the UN, as long as it is lifting categories outside the UN sanctions. It holds no obligations whatsoever to notify every little detail to a country like South Korea. Not only is this action validated by the international laws, this is a clean and earnest humanitarian effort to bring these people back to their familiesㅡ why should Japan worry about irritating Koreans, who always pick on history and comfort women in the supposed light of ‘human rights,’ after all? Even China, the emerging concern to Japan’s security, acknowledges this approach to make peace with North Korea. The US? Who cares! it needs Japan more than ever in order to ‘pivot to Asia.’

Even China acknowledges Japan’s
approach to make peace with
North Korea. The US? Who cares!
It needs Japan more than ever
in order to ‘pivot’.

How far did the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs see these through? Am I expecting too much from my own government? Maybe I am, considering our intelligence is helplessly dependent on civilian sources such as Kyodo News and satellite images by John’s Hopkins University for anything related to our next door cousin. Why would I ever anticipate anything more from our complacent diplomats?

In sum, this agreement was the yield of skillful maneuver by Japan to breakthrough its troubled ties with the Korean peninsula. They managed to employ this at an excellent point in time, with which a several favorable conditions coincided: when the North Korean and Chinese human rights issues are receiving worldwide attentions; when China, de facto patron of North Korea, has unusually turned its back against Kim Jong-un for purging his pro-China party members; and when Park Geun-hye remains steadfast against the nuclear North even when facing threats to shut down Kaesong industrial complex. It was only natural that Pyongyang, having nowhere else to turn to, would look for a niche partner for financing its troubled economyㅡand Japan simply offered a hand.

The Japanese PKO in Sudan

Here is a similar incident that happened last year, when Korea’s peacekeeping troop in South Sudan under terrorist threat had to request armaments from the Japanese Self-Defense Force. Putting aside the whole discourse on Abe politicizing this event to push ‘active pacifism,’ or lifting the age-old arms export ban, let us go back to the basics: a military corps dispatched to a conflicted faraway region did not even have sufficient arms to defend itself, so it had to obsequiously ask for help from another country; yet, the government of the helped decides to problematize this rather than thanking? To a sound mind, the Korean government must seem not simply ungrateful but extremely ignorant, albeit the ridiculous unpreparedness of South Korea’s peacekeeping troop.

At this point, the rate of ‘amai’ness of Korea’s foreign ministry and its officials is almost embarrassing. They were behind in gathering potentially crucial information, and when the media caught this, they were busy nagging about it. Of course, in bottom line, I agree with the criticism that Japan’s such move would hurt the long-run effort to pressure North Korea to come out to negotiations. If such ‘appeasing’ gesture by Japan would ultimately result in a more hostile North Korea, either conventionally or asymmetrically, one could say that Abe had been shortsighted to aid Pyongyang. However, the biggest loser in this scenario would still be none other than South Korea who did not prevent it from happening. Seoul simply has no time to criticize anyone for not being cooperative enough. It just cannot afford to.

Throughout history, the residents of this peninsula have been continuously tormented by the failures of their leaders and representatives to predict and deter wars. The rulers of Baekje collapsed before Tang China; King Seonjo was the first to abandon the capital when Hideyoshi’s samurai landed on Korea’s shores; Syngman Rhee left false radio message assuring safety while he fled from total invasion by North Korea. The historical experiences impelled Koreans to deeply distrust their leaders, who were supposed to safeguard their sovereignty, life, and properties. Rather, they have come to trust in themselves to protect their nation.

At the height of Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute between China and Japan, the suggestion by Tokyo District Government to purchase the island and nationalize it arouse anger and controversy from both sides. The Koreans did not expect Seoul to nationalize Dokdo when it came to their share of territorial dispute with Japan. In Senkaku, there are no Japanese people; in Dokdo, an ordinary Korean household and police with South Korean postal address have been living there since the 1970s. It is these ordinary people who, simply by staying at homes and continuing with their lives near the troubled borders, silently protects this country. History? The International Court of Justice? They do not matter. These brave, ordinary people are the real backbone of South Korea’s security.

This country, after all, has been run by
its people, not its leaders ㅡ Kim Jiha

Koreans are strong. They are far from being amai. However,their government has constantly failed and disappointed them. Japan is roughly the opposite: as far as the foreign policies are concerned, Tokyo has been remarkably shrewd. They saw through the heart of international politics, its core metternichian nature: there are no eternal enemies or allies. Ordinary Japanese people have been enjoying the post-war prosperity brought by these enlightened policymakers. Is this a bit of an exaggeration? Let us remember what(or who) caused the Sewol sinking, which was clearly man-made; and something like this will never happen in Japan. Now, who was really being amai?

Read this article in Korean



Founder, editor-in-chief