Community can start off with small units

July 17, 2006

Minister of Commerce, Industry and Energy, South Korea

Many countries in East Asia have great potential and are experiencing rapid growth. A consensus has been reached by the regional countries to build a community along the lines of the EU and NAFTA.

But such a community remains a concept and no tangible results have been produced yet. The region still has a long way to go before it sees a community in the mold of the EU and NAFTA.

The greatest barrier to the creation of such a community is the fact that China, Japan and South Korea - the three most important countries in the region both politically and economically - are not making as much effort as leading countries in the other regions toward that end.

The Korean Peninsula is still divided into ideologically incompatible halves - the capitalist South and the communist North - a legacy of the Cold War.

We do not have a satisfying concept and long-term vision of what the common community should be like. That is why countries in the region put competition above cooperation, fighting over history issues and other points of conflict.

Some Japanese politicians continue to visit Yasukuni Shrine (which enshrines Class-A war criminals along with Japan's war dead), and make comments that flagrantly disregard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a neighbor.

These actions call the sincerity of Japan's apologies for its colonial rule of Asian neighbors into question. Japanese politicians should stop visiting the Shinto shrine and making comments that trample a neighboring country's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The three countries of South Korea, Japan and China should adopt a gradualist approach to building cooperative relationships. Instead of trying to create ideal relationships among them in one bold step, the three Asian neighbors should seek to solve one pending issue after another and build better relations on the back of these achievements one step at a time.

There are a great variety of cultures, religions and customs in East Asia, so it would be wiser to adopt a bottom-up approach, under which many sub-regional economic units will be strengthened first before these groupings are finally integrated into one.

For instance, South Korea and Japan should seek to conclude a bilateral free trade agreement, and South Korea and China should try to sign a similar deal. On the back of these pacts, the three countries should seek to build a system of economic cooperation for Northeast Asia.

In this connection, it is important for Japan, the greatest economic power in the region, to take a longer and broader perspective and show future-oriented attitudes.

The three countries should seek to reap common benefits from the system and devise a series of measures to prevent a potential crisis from developing into a full-blown one.

Then, the set of measures can be broadened to a system designed to prevent the recurrence of the currency crisis, among other potential crises. It is important to adopt the formula of ASEAN plus Japan, China and South Korea that South Korea has advanced as the benchmark of a regionwide economic community and try to further expand it in the future.

Titles of speakers, names of companies, etc., were correct as of the time when the forum was held.