| The winter at Baekdamsa temple in Inje County, Gangwon Province is harsh and long. Former President Chun Doo-hwan spent 25 months of exile there after leaving his home in western Seoul in November 1988 amid public outcry against his dictatorship. After he returned from the exile, he once recalled his days at the temple, saying, "In a winter like this, you will get frozen in a toilet.
When he was staying at the temple, he received an unexpected package from former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who sent wool socks, a music CD and sweet red bean jelly. It would not be hard to imagine how Chun, who must have been grinding his teeth in the severe cold deep in the mountain after losing power, felt about Nakasone`s considerations. In his book, Nakasone said he did so "out of concern" for Chun. The episode shows the character of Nakasone, whose lifetime motto was respecting relationships with other people.
The ex-Japanese prime minister attached importance to Tokyo`s ties with Seoul and Beijing while in office but also caused troubles in the relations with the neighbors. He was the first Japanese prime minister to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan`s war dead including Class-A war criminals. No wonder the visit caused an explosion of public outcry in South Korea and China. He never visited the shrine again. Why?
He said that he did not visit the shrine again because it put Hu Yaobang, the then reform-minded general secretary of the Communist Party of China, into political trouble. In the book, Nakasone wrote about how the two and their families maintained close relationships and that his shrine visit pushed Hu to the verge of being expelled by the conservatives. "I thought that it should never happen, and I stopped visiting the Yasukuni Shrine from the following year," Nakasone wrote.
The episode is a keen reminder of the fact that after all, diplomacy and state governance are all done by people and that political leaders are also bound by private relationships. While stressing that the leaders of South Korea, Japan and China should meet often, Nakasone said, "During the process of diplomatic leaders` meetings, buds of friendship sprout. This is something that bureaucrats at the foreign ministry cannot do."
The Seoul-Tokyo and Beijing-Tokyo ties have been aggravating since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine late last year. All the responsibilities should go to Abe, who is obsessed about making Japan a country capable of waging a war, turning a deaf ear to criticisms from the international community. No excuses sound convincing. However, it is regretful that Seoul and Beijing are ignoring his repeated calls for summits with leaders of the neighbors. They have a lot of challenges to tackle with Japan.
On January 11, 1983, exactly 31 year ago, Nakasone became the first Japanese prime minister to visit South Korea. His purpose was to resolve bilateral ties strained by thorny issues involving Japan`s history textbooks and bilateral economic cooperation. At a banquet in Seoul, Nakasone made his opening and closing speeches in Korea, which he had learned previously. Some attendees from Seoul shed tears. Nakasone received a standing ovation. During a following drinking party, he and then South Korean President Chun drank a lot and finally hugged each other. Nakasone called the visit a "great success."
Nakasone might have risked political burdens by choosing South Korea over the United States as the first destination of his overseas trip after becoming prime minister. Still, he did not hesitate to forge relationship with the South Korean president, whose political legitimacy was on a weak foundation.
The current leaders of South Korea and Japan will attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, which begins on January 21. I hope that South Korean President Park Geun-hye has meaningful dialogue with her Japanese counterpart. She cannot bring about any change by avoiding contacts with Abe even if she does not like him. Who know? Abe might change his mind if he builds friendship with President Park.