Hoping for the Best Ever World Cup
John de Boer (University of Tokyo)
The world press spoke loudly of warming ties between South Korea and Japan this past week as they watched Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Korean President Kim Dae-jung pledge to work closely to make the upcoming 2002 FIFA World Cup the best ever. Adding to the positive atmosphere, both governments launched a formal study on a bi-lateral free trade agreement that would create one of the largest common markets in the world. Considering that it has been only eight months since South Korea called back its Ambassador in Tokyo in protest of PM Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and the approval of a controversial history text book by the Japanese Ministry of Education, relations between the two certainly seem to be on the upswing. However, in the absence of any dialogue on substantial political issues that have plagued Japanese-South Korean relations for the past fifty years, questions remain as to how long the euphoria will last after the World Cup event is over.
There is little doubt that the South Koreans and Japanese will produce the best World Cup in the history of the event. Both countries are soccer crazy and will do everything to make sure that this objective is met. They have already spent an incredible amount of money on supporting infrastructure and although "temporary", the two countries have come to an unprecedented agreement to extend visa waivers to Koreans traveling for matches in Japan. In terms of infrastructure, PM Koizumi also tested a high-speed video link between Busan and Fukuoka this past week that according to Sang-Hun Choe of the Associated Press symbolizes efforts to build closer economic ties between the two countries. The new link costs $50 million dollars and will handle the bulk of the data traffic for the tournament.
The announcement of a formal study of a bi-lateral free trade agreement has also been lauded by the international media as a significant move. Brendon Pearson of the Financial Review remarked that this will represent one of the largest common markets in the world with a combined GCP of nearly $US 5 trillion and 170 million people. Official statistics provided by JETRO and the Korean Institute of Economic Policy claimed that the agreement could boost Japanese exports to Korea by 16% and Korean exports to Japan by 8%. For Korea, this will translate into a 2% increase in GDP (Pearson, Financial Review, March 21).
Don Kirk of the International Herald Tribune interpreted these events as an attempt by the leaders of Japan and South Korea to "bury" the antagonism between the two countries. With Koizumi and Kim claiming that relations were "forward looking" Kirk confirmed that "the tone indicated relations have improved since last August when Koizumi went to Yasukuni" (March 22).
Nevertheless, some onlookers are questioning how long the two will be able to focus on the future without resolving outstanding claims over Japanese crimes committed in Korea during its 35 year colonization of the peninsula between 1910 and 1945. Attempting to bury the past without dealing with these core issues simply creates more aggravation and contempt. Both governments are investing a considerable amount of effort into making a one-month football tournament an astounding success, in the meantime they are neglecting core grievances that represent a life-time of importance.
Unfortunately, the bi-lateral FTA is also viewed with suspicion by some. A Financial Times article featured in a major Singaporean newspaper commented that the agreement "was widely seen as a bid by Japan not to lose influence in the Asia region to China, which agreed with ASEAN members last November to establish an FTA within ten years" (March 20). Brendon Pearson pointed out that besides apprehension about entering into a formal tie with a former colonial master, many in Korea are fearful about entering into an FTA with an economy that is ten times the size of its own (Financial Review, March 21). Many small Korean businesses are worried about their survival.
If anything, the co-hosting of the World Cup has created a positive political ambiance. However, unless politicians on both sides make use of this opportunity to resolve historical problems, I am afraid that the euphoria may die down as the football teams go home. By overlooking these issues, Japan and South Korea would be neglecting the interests of those who have legitimate claims and they will not rest until they have been properly addressed. Both peoples should press their governments to engage these problems that tear them apart with dialogue. If this is done, this World Cup will truly be the best ever.
- Sang-Hun Choe, "Japan, South Korea Test Communications", The Associated Press, March 23
- "World Cup Hosts Stress Teamwork", BBC, March 22
- Don Kirk, "Seoul and Japan push for healing", International Herald Tribune, March 22
- Brendon Pearson, "Japan, Korea discuss trade pact", Financial Review, March 21
- "Tokyo and Seoul to get free trade pact going", The Financial Times, March 20
- "Japan and South Korea looking at FTA, says paper", Singapore Straits Times, March 20