Enduring a Chill in Ties with South Korea


In October 1998, on the occasion of a visit to Japan by South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung, he and Japan’s Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō issued a joint statement titled “A New Japan–Republic of Korea Partnership towards the Twenty-first Century,” which included the following passages:

The two leaders conducted an overall review of past relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, reaffirmed the current friendly and cooperative relations, and exchanged views on how the relations between the two countries should be in the future.As a result of the meeting, the two leaders declared their common determination to raise to a higher dimension the close, friendly and cooperative relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea which have been built since the normalization of their relations in 1965 so as to build a new Japan–Republic of Korea partnership towards the twenty-first century.The two leaders shared the view that in order for Japan and the Republic of Korea to build solid, good-neighborly and friendly relations in the twenty-first century, it was important that both countries squarely face the past and develop relations based on mutual understanding and trust.Looking back on the relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea during this century, Prime Minister Obuchi regarded in a spirit of humility the fact of history that Japan caused, during a certain period in the past, tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea through its colonial rule, and expressed his deep remorse and heartfelt apology for this fact.President Kim accepted with sincerity this statement of Prime Minister Obuchi's recognition of history and expressed his appreciation for it. He also expressed his view that the present calls upon both countries to overcome their unfortunate history and to build a future-oriented relationship based on reconciliation as well as good-neighborly and friendly cooperation.

This joint statement was supposed to become the foundation of relations between Japan and South Korea in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, however, the recent words and deeds of South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak can only be taken to indicate that South Korea has completely abandoned this statement, the spirit behind it, and the political will to develop a future-oriented relationship.

South Korea is a country of great importance for Japan in both geopolitical and economic terms. But we need to take serious note of the fact that 14 years after this fundamental statement was issued, though there have only been two changes of president since then, the evidence shows that the South Koreans have given up on it. Precisely because this country is such an important neighbor, it is better for Japan not to rush to repair bilateral ties as soon as a new president is inaugurated in Seoul following the elections in December. That is liable to lead to a recurrence of the same sort of situation in short order. The political leaders and general public of both countries need to review and reconfirm the crucial nature of this relationship. This means that we must endure a chill in bilateral ties for a while.

No Substitute for the Trans-Pacific Partnership

From August 25 to September 1, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held its economic ministers meeting and related meetings in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which holds the ASEAN chairmanship this year. At the ASEAN+6 economic ministers meeting on August 30, which included ministers from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea, the participants agreed on a document titled “Guiding Principles and Objectives for Negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.” Based on this agreement, the leaders of the 10 ASEAN members and 6 other countries are slated to start negotiations on the RCEP framework at their summit meeting this November, with the aim of reaching an agreement by 2015. According to the guiding principles, the countries involved will seek to create a comprehensive treaty based on negotiations covering not just merchandise and services trade and investment but also areas like intellectual property and competition. The objective will be to conclude a treaty that surpasses ASEAN’s existing free trade agreements in scope and quality.

A comprehensive economic partnership based on the ASEAN+6 framework would have various advantages, including lower costs, for Japanese companies that operate regional production networks stretching across East Asia. In that respect, this move to start the RCEP negotiations before the end of the year is welcome. But the Japanese government must not take this as an excuse to delay its decision to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko did not announce such a decision at the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on September 8 in Vladivostok. The TPP is the model for maintaining and developing an open and fair system of free trade in the Asia-Pacific, the world’s economic growth center for the current century. Participation in the TPP talks will naturally entail making difficult decisions about where to yield, where to hold firm, and what to seek. But refraining from taking part in these negotiations is simply not an option for Japan, because it would mean not being at the table where the rules will be made for twenty-first-century Asia-Pacific trade. And all it takes for Japan to participate is a decision by the prime minister. Those opposed to this move are not going to become supporters with the passage of time. Prime Minister Noda has succeeded in getting a hike in the consumption tax enacted. This is a major accomplishment. Next he should make the decision to take part in the TPP negotiations. That should come before any move to call a general election. Noda will then be able to seek a vote of confidence from the public in his forging of “politics able to make decisions.”

An Irresponsible Earthquake Forecast

On August 29 the Cabinet Office released a projection on the possible impact of a huge earthquake in the Nankai Trough, located in the Pacific Ocean to the south of Japan. Up to now the government has projected a possible earthquake of magnitude 8.8 from simultaneous seismic activity in the Tōkai, Tōnankai, and Nankai regions of the Pacific based on studies of the effects of the 1707 Hōei earthquake. It has not considered the possibility of a quake of a scale that might happen once in a number of centuries or once in a millennium, like the one that struck last year in the Pacific to the east of Japan. Now it has decided to prepare projections of the impact, including the height of tsunamis and the loss of lives, from earthquakes that are scientifically conceivable, even if their cycle of expected occurrence is extremely long—and even if there is no proof that they occurred in the past. According to the August 29 estimate, fatalities from the Nankai Trough quake could top 300,000, with tsunamis as high as 34 meters in some locations.

What has happened here is not a case of previously unknown information being discovered. It was known that such a rare, massive quake was scientifically possible, but it was not included within the range of expectations for earthquake-preparedness purposes.

In this connection, we need to consider the actual chances of the quake’s occurrence. The probability that a Tōnankai earthquake will occur within the next 30 years is said to be as high as 70%, and the figure for a Nankai earthquake is 60%. But the probability of this Nankai Trough earthquake is surely much lower. Statistically, the chances of occurrence of earthquakes can be assumed to follow a power-law probability distribution, decreasing sharply as magnitude increases (see the graph, where the horizontal scale represents magnitude and the vertical scale represents probability of occurrence). For high magnitudes, the probability of occurrence becomes infinitesimally small. The question is how far in this skinny “tail” to extend the range of expectations. The further to the right one goes before drawing a cut-off line, the higher the costs of the required countermeasures and the lower the expected returns on the money spent.

Power-Law Probability Distribution

Why did the government decide to release just the sensational data on the potential impact of a huge Nankai Trough quake at this juncture without qualifying it with information about the costs and expected returns? This strikes me as a highly irresponsible move.

(Originally written in Japanese on September 10, 2012.)

earthquake Shiraishi Takashi Noda Yoshihiko TPP ASEAN South Korea Lee Myung-bak Kim Dae-jung Obuchi Keizo