Japan Times [13 Feb 2002] "Junior lawmakers build ties through liquor, karaoke "

February 13, 2002 12:00 AM

Japan Times [13 Feb 2002]
"Junior lawmakers build ties through liquor, karaoke "

The English language, karaoke and boilermakers are the three main ingredients fueling bilateral relations between a group of promising young politicians from Japan and South Korea.

They call each other's cell phones across the Sea of Japan, are on a first-name basis, exchange jokes in English and arrange their next meeting without the need of an interpreter or help from Foreign Ministry bureaucrats.

"Rather than starting with touchy issues, like Yasukuni Shrine or the history textbook row, we started by taking meals together, singing karaoke and drinking Bombshell Cocktails (a South Korean mix of whiskey and beer)," said Taro Kono, 39, a House of Representatives member and son of former Foreign Minister Yohei Kono.

"Once our human relationship is built, we never end up in a quarrel," Kono said, "even when we have a heated debate and become divided over a certain issue, like whether or not to grant suffrage to South Korean nationals living in Japan."

This private circle of young lawmakers began in 1998, when Upper House member Ichita Yamamoto visited Seoul in the hope of meeting with young leaders of the country often dubbed Japan's "geographically close but politically remote" neighbor.

"It is my belief that South Korea can be Japan's strategic partner in Asia," Yamamoto said. "But I had a sense of fear that we won't have effective bilateral communication channels for the next generation."

Yamamoto, 44, specialized in East Asian studies at Georgetown University in the U.S. and worked at the United Nations Development Program before becoming an Upper House member in 1995.

"When I asked Korean experts for advice, all of them suggested that I meet Kim Min Seok first."

Although Kim, dubbed South Korea's "star" politician, was too busy to schedule an appointment with Yamamoto, the Japanese lawmaker flew to Seoul anyway and waited. Kim finally showed up at a Seoul hotel.

"He was apparently moved by the fact that I came over all the way even without being sure that I would be actually able to meet him," Yamamoto said. "Then, we hit it off well together and promised to start a dialogue between the younger-generation politicians from both sides."

In May 1998, Yamamoto visited Seoul again, this time accompanied by Kono, his Liberal Democratic Party colleague and also a Georgetown University alumnus, and three other like-minded LDP lawmakers.

It was a purely private visit. They flew to Seoul in economy class and drove around in a rented car. At their meeting with Kim and other South Korean lawmakers, the group launched the Bakudan-no-kai, or Bombshell Group, named after the stiff cocktail that fueled their friendly relations.

"Actually, we don't drink a lot. Sometimes, we don't even drink at all," said Kim, 37, who belongs to South Korea's ruling Millennium Democratic Party. "Anyway, we started like that and it helped a lot. It made us feel more like a family.

"I think this kind of way of building a friendship or relationship may help in the future and let us deal with more serious issues, because if you consider someone as your friend to whom you can talk to and be frank and honest, you can talk more efficiently when you have some problem," Kim said.

In 2001, another young lawmaker from South Korea's Grand National Party, the main opposition group, joined the informal group after meeting with Yamamoto and Kono in Seoul.

"We had a good time at a Korean karaoke bar and I promised to start studying Japanese and learn Japanese songs," Won Hee Ryong said. The 37-year-old lawmaker said he can now belt out a perfectly fluent rendition of the Japanese song "Kimi-to-Itsumademo" by Yuzo Kayama.

However, it's not all partying. The lawmakers are hoping to establish themselves as an unofficial diplomatic channel between Tokyo and Seoul.

Last fall, Yamamoto and Kono visited Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who promised -- "if the situation permits" -- to pay a visit to Seoul to help repair some of the damage caused by his controversial visit in August to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals among the war dead. Tokyo's main concern is the degree of protest Koizumi's visit would likely spark, especially from the GNP.

The Bombshell Group relayed to Koizumi a message from the South Korean side that the GNP mainstream is not opposed to Koizumi's visit. Shortly after, Koizumi officially announced his plan to visit Seoul.

"I don't know how that message affected the prime minister's decision, but it was a timely message, anyway," Yamamoto said.

Added Kono: "In return, I told the (South) Korean side to deny the rumor that Prime Minister Koizumi hates Korean food. I told them that he just hates pickles so please never put kimchi on his table."

Koizumi's day trip to Seoul in October, however, was not a perfect success. He had to cancel his visit to the South Korean National Assembly building due to a protest by four senior GNP members picketing the legislature's entrance.

"The president of the GNP was very angry and scolded them very harshly. He urged them to apologize (to Koizumi)," Won said. "After that incident, our party president gave me a message, which he asked me to forward to the Japanese government. So I went to Tokyo and met with Kono and Yamamoto.

"In the message, the president said he was really sorry for having failed to prevent that type of protest," Won said. "A lawmaker can protest to the Japanese prime minister, but not in that way because they were saying they will physically block his entrance if Koizumi ever visits there."

"Even though they (the Bombshell Group) have not yet produced much visible outcome," said Park Jeong Hoon, Tokyo correspondent of South Korea's major daily, The Chosun Ilbo, "this unofficial movement is creating a big current."

Relationship-building between South Korean and Japanese lawmakers has long relied on South Korea's older generation of Japanese-speaking lawmakers and the official Japan-South Korea Lawmakers' Association, which has been "often tainted with scandalous images and facts about concession-hunting, bid-rigging and shady deals behind closed doors," Park added.

In 1996, the late former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita played a role in arranging a meeting in Tokyo between top executives of scandal-tainted Japanese contractor Wakachiku Construction Co. and South Korean conglomerate Daewoo Group.

Takeshita, then chairman of the Japan-South Korea Lawmakers' Association, acted as a go-between in organizing the meeting, which was reportedly set up by two political "fixers" -- Kunio Fukumoto and Heo Young Joong -- who were later implicated in a bribery scandal involving Wakachiku, according to an August 2000 article in the daily Yomiuri Shimbun.

The article suggests that Wakachiku was trying to use its political connections to expand its business interests in Asia.

"This old style, although it still exists, is apparently beginning to fade out and be replaced with political dialogue of a new, different dimension," Park said.

"In the new style, the common language is English and there's no shady image," he said. "They talk straight, disclose their discussions on the Web and try to seek a strategic Japan-South Korean partnership from a global perspective."

However, Keio University professor Masao Okonogi is skeptical. Okonogi claims the new form of dialogue between the younger generation of lawmakers is only a minority movement.

"It is a movement by a group of internationally minded lawmakers who can speak English," said Okonogi, a Korean affairs expert.

"In Japan, more and more young lawmakers seem to be turning conservative in search of local voter support. Just belonging to a young generation does not necessarily mean they can make a better Japan-South Korea relationship."

At the very least, changes appear to be taking place on the South Korean side. Park Geun Hye, 49, daughter of assassinated South Korean President Park Chung Hee, who ruled the nation in the 1960s and 1970s and normalized diplomatic relations with Japan in 1965, said deep-rooted anti-Japan sentiment in South Korea is not as prevalent among the younger generation of South Koreans.

"My father's generation could speak Japanese, but lawmakers who are now in their 60s or younger cannot. So it seems to me that communication in English is the way to go," said Park, who is also a close friend of Yamamoto and Kono but doesn't join them for their boilermaker-drinking meetings.

"Old-generation Koreans naturally had a strong anti-Japan sentiment," she said. "But young (South) Koreans are now in the process of gradually leaving that kind of feeling behind."

Park, a GNP vice president preparing to run in the presidential election in December, has come to Japan on an annual basis since she was first elected in 1998.

Later this month, Yamamoto and Kono will lead a delegation of 10 junior LDP lawmakers to Seoul for a joint political seminar with GNP lawmakers.

Issues topping their agenda include finalizing a free-trade agreement between Japan and South Korea, starting regular commercial flights between Tokyo's Haneda airport and Seoul's Kimpo Airport and sharing antiterrorism security intelligence, and stepping up bilateral cooperation ahead of the World Cup soccer finals to be cohosted by both nations beginning in late May.

Separately, the two Japanese lawmakers plan to stump for Kim in Seoul when he runs for mayor in June.

In Japan meanwhile, Yamamoto plans to soon invite Kim and Won to speak on a weekly radio program on political affairs that he hosts.

"We do not want to make this something ceremonial," Yamamoto said. "What is important in lawmakers' communication is to meet people you really want to meet. And you cannot do this without an honest feeling that you want to understand each other."