Korean and Japanese Legislators Working Together

Despite often tense relations, legislative exchanges have occured between the two for decades. Deepening that aspect of the relationship could be constructive.

Editor’s Note: TNI has teamed up with Japan-ROK Working Group at the Pacific Forum CSIS in order to preview its upcoming report focused on improving bilateral relations through targeted engagement on a range of areas. The “Japan-ROK Series” will feature five timely articles summarizing these recommendations in fields such as cooperation on North Korea, missile defense, counterpiracy, energy security and inter-parliamentary ties. This is the third article in the series.

One of the very first informal traces of Japanese-Korean interparliamentary interaction was a meeting on June 6, 1968, attended by nine Japanese and twenty-two Korean parliamentarians in Seoul, to discuss issues ranging from trade and commerce, to the treatment of Korean residents in Japan, to mutual security assurance. This occurred only a few years after the 1965 normalization of relations between Tokyo and Seoul. Officially, a friendship association was launched in 1972, which later evolved into a parliamentarians’ league in 1975 and finally took on the name of the parliamentarians’ union that is used today. Not to be confused as one monolithic whole, there are counterparts almost in the mirror image of each other with similar operational properties in Japan and Korea—the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union and the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Union, respectively. As of October 2013, the Japanese body is headed by Nukaga Fukushiro, former Finance Minister and a member of the House of Representatives of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), while its Korean counterpart has Hwang Woo-yeo, the ruling Saenuri Party’s chair, at its helm. Aside from a general meeting that is held each year, the two groups aim to enhance bilateral cooperation through exchanges, visits and consultations.

Perhaps as evidence of how receptive incoming administrations are to these groups, a delegation led by Representative Nukaga visited Seoul on January 4, 2013 and held talks with then president-elect Park Geun-hye. This was followed a few days later by a courtesy call on the newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo by the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Union on January 9, 2013. The most recent and notable event involving the two organizations was a consultative meeting between Hwang Woo-yeo and Nukaga Fukushiro on August 23; Nukagawas also awarded an honorary doctorate from South Korea’s Yong In University.

Benefits & Potential Limitations

Benefits

a) Realizing the advantages of parliamentary diplomacy

Japan and South Korea have yet to hold a formal one-on-one summit as of May 2012, with the latest encounter occurring at the U.S.-brokered trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in The Hague. Unlike head of state meetings that typically represent the pinnacle of official exchange between two countries, meetings among parliamentarians are less susceptible to symbolic interpretation. Thus, parliamentarians can supplement traditional diplomacy, as they have greater flexibility in their actions and are well positioned to mediate between the government and the public given their closer proximity to domestic constituents. In this vein, the ability to shape and influence public sentiment at a close range is critical in furthering Japanese-Korean relations, as policy implementation in both countries are often described as being at the mercy of public opinion or volatile ‘nationalism’—a case in point is the unsuccessful attempt at signing the Japan-Korea General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) or the growing anti-Korean rallies in Japan. Subsequently, tapping into parliamentarians as actors of incremental diplomacy will create the necessary space for the typical state-to-state interaction to incorporate more of a state-to-society element.

b) Reinforcing political accountability & bipartisanship

Unfortunately, the year 2013 was a reminder that politicians are susceptible to verbal gaffes or actions that throw them into the limelight of controversy. In July, Japan’s Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Aso Taro, triggered indignation for comments that seemed to suggest that the Nazi reforms of the Weimar constitution could be a model for Japan. As the interparliamentary group is reinvigorated, the level of responsibility that would fall on parliamentarians will likely increase, hopefully adding another layer of restraint and accountability. Moreover, the interparliamentary group has the potential of reinforcing bipartisanship within the domestic arena of Japan and South Korea, as cross-party membership will stress unity in order to facilitate cooperation at the interstate level.

c) Capitalizing on favorable structural conditions

A fact that often goes unnoticed or buried under media reports of spiraling sentiments of hostility between Japan and Korea is that, comparatively speaking, the interaction between Japanese and Korean lawmakers has quite a long and fruitful history. For instance, the U.S.-Japan Parliamentary Exchange Program was launched in 1968, the same year that the Japanese and Korean parliamentarian delegation first met; meanwhile, the U.S.-Republic of Korea Inter-Parliamentary Exchange was established fairly recently in 2000. In fact, after the new administration of Park Geun-hye took office in South Korea, there were reports citing that the Korea-China Inter-Parliamentary Group (which is housed under the National Assembly Secretary) only received roughly a sixth of the government subsidy received by the Korea-Japan Inter-Parliamentary Group (which is its own independent entity). Both Japan and Korea should not take for granted the advantages of a long-running institutional framework that has been in place with the specific objective of consolidating bilateral relations.

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