Asahi Shimbun [22 March 2002)] "Lawmakers ferment friendship"

March 22, 2002 12:00 AM

Asahi Shimbun [22 March 2002)]
"Lawmakers ferment friendship"

Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Kono doesn't think politicians are on the ball-in World Cup terms, at least.

Kono, an ardent supporter of the J2 football club Shonan Bellmare, has no doubt soccer supporters from both countries are already building strong friendships.

``I thought it was time that politics caught up,'' said Kono, whose Shonan Bellmare colors, with autographs of the players, have a place of prominence in his Tokyo office.

In a nutshell, Kono wants to create a new forward-looking relationship between Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) ``through a young politician's network.''

``As for the World Cup itself, I am looking forward to seeing both countries' superstars, Hidetoshi Nakata and Hong Myung Bo. Both started out in Bellmare,'' said the 39-year-old politician and son of former Foreign Minister Yohei Kono who served as Bellmare's chairman until he was appointed parliamentary secretary for public management in January. Nakata and Hong played for Bellmare until 1998.

``I think soccer supporters from Japan and South Korea are already close. After all, they jointly hoisted a banner declaring `Let's go to France together' in a Seoul stadium during a Japan-South Korea match in 1997 for the World Cup being held in France the following year.''

Kono recalled how he and other young LDP lawmakers were invited to Seoul in 1998 by South Korean assemblyman Chung Mong Joon, 50. Chung, president of the Korea Football Association, arranged a private visit and took his guests to his favorite watering hole in Seoul. There, he plied his visitors with strong liquor called Bakudan, or bombshell, a South Korean mix of whiskey and beer.

The young LDP visitors, among them Ichita Yamamoto, 44, former parliamentary vice minister for foreign affairs, got ``bombed.'' Kono used that experience to launch an informal group called the Japan-Korea Bakudan Lawmakers League, in honor of the night they got drunk.

``We started out by drinking liquor over karaoke as a way of making friends, keeping away from touchy issues such as history,'' Kono said.

Chung is a core member of the group, as is Kim Min Seok, 37, of South Korea's ruling Millennium Democratic Party.

``Our common language is English,'' Kono said. ``We are now discussing a host of issues such as a possible free trade agreement between Japan and South Korea, regular commercial flights between Tokyo's Haneda Airport and Seoul's Kimpo Airport, and plans for a Super League in the Far East including football clubs in Japan, South Korea and China, by making use of the newly built stadiums for the 2002 World Cup.''

According to Kono, the unofficial diplomatic channel he set up was useful in defusing tensions over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's controversial visit to Yasukuni Shrine last Aug. 13.

Koizumi considered visiting South Korea to repair relations but hesitated because of protests over there. There were rumors that Koizumi dislikes Korean food.

``At the meeting with Koizumi, we relayed a message from Seoul that the mood was not that bad. We also learned that Koizumi dislikes pickles (of any kind). It was not a question of him disliking Korean food, just pickles, period.

``Soon after the meeting,'' Kono continued, ``I telephoned Kim Min Seok and told him, `Please don't put (Korean pickle) kimchi on Koizumi's table.'''

Koizumi finally managed to make an official visit to Seoul in October.

Kono describes himself as a second generation lawmaker who can communicate in English. As for the first generation-those in their 60s or older-building bridges between Japan and South Korea had always depended on Korean lawmakers who spoke fluent Japanese, reflecting the Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

``It's inevitable that we English speakers eventually will be categorized as the older generation,'' he said. ``But more and more young trilingual lawmakers will appear in the Diet.''(IHT/Asahi: March 22,2002)