Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Changing Strategic Value of the Korean Peninsula
TAOKA Shunji  / Senior Defence Correspondent of the Asahi Shimbun

August 8, 2001
Since the 19th century, the Korean Peninsula had been likened to a "dagger pointed at Japan from the continent," and to prevent Russia from taking advantage of a weakening China to seize the peninsula had been a strategic goal for Japan. Prior to the Russo-Japanese War, as the Russians built a battery on the southern bank of the Yalu River and acquired naval coaling stations on Korean shores, and as war seemed imminent, Japan's Navy Minister however argued with Army officers who were planning to send divisions into Korea, saying "Why can't we let the Russians take Korea?" It was a legitimate question: if the Japanese Navy could defeat the Russian Fleet, Russian occupation of Korea would not pose a threat to Japan; but on the other hand, if the navy should be defeated, Japanese Army troops being sent into Korea would become prisoners. It was a historical mistake that, as a result of this war Japan committed itself to continental Asia by ruling Korea and turning Manchuria into its sphere of influence. Japan was inevitably confronted with the nationalistic sentiments of the Koreans and the Chinese. If there had been enough support in Japan for the Navy Minister's stance back in 1903, present-day Korea would probably have been one of newly independent republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and a pro-Japanese country.

Fortunately, the Russian Far East Forces have all but evaporated. Only two surface combatants are currently operational in the Pacific. And only 86,000 army troops are left in entire Siberia east of the Ural Mountains. If nobody else is to pick up the dagger, there is no reason Japan should either. Since 7th century onwards, China had recognized semi-independent status for Korean, except when preventing it from falling under hostile power's control. The strategic importance of the Korean Peninsula has more or less been lost for Japan as well as for the United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union, making the issue between South Korea and North Korea for the most part an internal issue for the peninsula.

Rather, the biggest concern for Japan and the United States is economic in nature. When North Korea collapses in future and unification is realized, will South Korea, with a much smaller net external credit compared with West Germany and a much fragile economy, be able to withstand the shock of absorbing North Korea, which is incomparably poorer than East Germany? Korea's $140 billion foreign debt will become irrecoverable, but the matter doesn't stop at. The bigger problem is who will foot the bill for rebuilding North Korea - estimated at roughly $1 trillion by South Korea. Being a net debtor nation, the United States does not have the surplus capital. And the textbook issue will make it psychologically difficult for South Korea to seek economic aid or financing from Japan, the largest creditor nation with personal savings exceeding $10 trillion. Meanwhile, Japanese conservatives cannot revert to advocating that Japan "should extend economic aid to prevent the Russians from building naval and air bases on the southern coast of South Korea," and they are themselves finding it harder to call South Korea a "friend."

Economic aid, investment and financing are extended either on the basis of strategic necessity or trust in continued friendly relations. And friendly sentiments are of course mutual. Since it is impossible for the Japanese government to order further revisions to the textbook in question, it is possible that the emotional rift between Japan and South Korea will widen. The peoples of Japan and South Korea may have to open their eyes to the reality that the Cold War is over and countries that belonged to the "Camp of Freedom" in the past aren't necessarily your friends today.

The author is a Senior Defence Correspondent of the Asahi Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

田岡 俊次 / 朝日新聞編集委員

2001年 8月 8日




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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Changing Strategic Value of the Korean Peninsula