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Fri, Mar 29, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Hyundai, Toshiba and games across the water

While South Korean and Japanese firms will have a strong presence at the World Cup, the games won't be a panacea for diplomatic relations or do anything to stop Japan's declining growth


South Korean passengers ride a subway train decorated with a picture of a soccer player in Seoul. The FIFA World Cup finals will kick off on May 31 and are being co-hosted by South Korea and Japan.


Hyundai Motor Co is dropping US$100 million on an ad campaign tied to the World Cup to be jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea. Across the Sea of Japan, Toshiba Corp is raffling tickets and Fuji Xerox Co plans to put a lot of gadgets into the hands of those organizing this year's football -- as in soccer to you Americans -- championship matches.

Business will do business in connection with this event, the opening match of which is scheduled for May 31 in Seoul. And let's not forget the construction companies -- prominent in both the Japanese and South Korean economies. Between them, Seoul and Tokyo will spend US$8 billion on these games, much of that going into new stadiums and infrastructure. The "construction state" lives on in all its boondoggling glory, it seems.

The diplomatic payoff is not so promising, however. As the first World Cup to be co-hosted across national frontiers, these games were supposed to bring two nations with long-time animosities closer together. But it isn't working out that way.

The squabbles have been many, and the fact that almost all of them have been petty only underscores the reality: The games will do nothing for bilateral ties other than show the fault lines.

The question to be asked isn't terribly complicated: So what? Anyone who takes the infighting between South Koreans and Japanese over the World Cup as a measure of diplomatic progress or the absence thereof is simply -- you'll have to forgive me for this one -- not keeping his eye on the ball.

Sports and money -- I've never viewed this as a pleasing mixture; rarely, if ever, does it work to the benefit of the former. It is the same with sports and diplomacy. From the famous Sino-American ping-pong matches onward, I've never seen a case where the benefits of such events come anywhere near the expectations in diplomatic terms. Sports is sports, as Yogi Berra never said but should have.

By the same token, bilateral ties is bilateral ties, and I don't see that they are going so badly for the South Koreans and the Japanese. Yes, Tokyo stands with Washington on the North Korean question -- which puts the Japanese at odds with President Kim Dae-Jung's "sunshine policy" toward Pyongyang. Yes, there have been more upsets over Japanese history texts, the most recent of which erupted a year ago, when a group of conservative Japanese historians published a volume with all the familiar omissions.

But consider how these matters are now handled.

Prime Minister Junchiro Koizumi, who proved his nationalist credentials last August by ritually honoring Japan's war dead, has been critical of Washington's axis-of-evil take on global affairs.

Koizumi has just visited Seoul for the second time in six months.

On his last tour -- a seven-hour whirlwind -- he extended yet another apology for Japan's wartime aggression and agreed to launch a bilateral commission of scholars that will vet schoolbooks and expose any distortions.

More to the point, the main event of Koizumi's visit to Seoul last week was the announcement of talks to forge a bilateral free-trade agreement between the two countries. Tokyo just recently signed an FTA with Singapore and is currently negotiating one with Mexico.

An FTA with Korea will not come overnight, certainly. But I'm hard-pressed to see that things between Seoul and Tokyo are on anything other than an upward swing.

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