Riots in South Korea sound alarm bells in Japan
South Korea's frightening vulnerability to internal dissent, as evidenced by the week-long insurrection in several cities, causes deep alarm in Japan. Officially, government spokesmen are trying to put on a brave face, insisting , for instance, that the emergence of a new government in Seoul last week was not expected to affect the basic relationship between the two countries.
Unfortunately, this does not happen to be the real issue.
Japan needs a strong and, if possible, democratic South Korea as a buffer against the hard-line communism that is already uncomfortably close. A Korea wracked by gun battles in the streets between the Army and student rebels, perhaps laying the country open to invasion from the communist North, is not in Japan's political or economic interests.
Defense officials in Tokyo, for example, were deeply disturbed by reports that the United Nations command had agreed to release Korean Army units from front-line duty to help suppress the riots.
What, a senior official wondered, would have happened if the insurrection had not been contained to a few towns in the remotest southwestern corner of the country?
Despite protestations of innocence from Pyongyang, the Japanese still fear a possible invasion by the numerically superior and well-armed North Korean Army to take advantage of the confusion in the South.
Washington's decision to station the aircraft carrier Coral Sea off the Korean coast for the next few weeks and send out Japan-based advanced-early-warning radar aircraft to keep an eye on the North was generally welcomed in Tokyo.
Politically, Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira says he will take up the Korean issue with Chinese Chairman Hua Guofeng, who is scheduled to arrive here Tuesday for an official visit. Government sources said Mr. Ohira would ask Chairman Hua to use China's influence with the North Koreans to prevent any military attack on the South.
On a more pragmatic level, Japanese businessmen are watching Korean developments for the effect on trade. South Korea, after all, is Japan's second largest export market after the United States. Exports totaled $6.25 billion last year, while imports from Korea were about half that level.
A spokesman for Mitsubishi Corporation, the nation's largest trading company, said, "It's still business as normal. But if unrest continues, I cannot see how trade can remain unaffected."
The Japanese public does not appear to have grasped the seriousness of the situation, reaction seems to be mainly of the "Oh, no, not again" variety. Sporadic upsurges of antigovernment violence have become endemic in South Korea, it is felt, and, as in the past, the military eventually will bring the situation under control.
But a senior official in the Foreign Ministry, well-informed on Korean politics, felt that this time there was cause for deep concern. "I don't think Korea has ever faced such a crisis since the student riots that toppled Syngman Rhee 20 years ago," he said.
The official, who insisted on remaining anonymous, said the uprising in Kwangju was really a test of South Korea's ability to survive. "The potential for disaster is extremely high. The foundations of the state will be destroyed."
As this official viewed the situation, it is very hard for the government in Seoul or the military to win.
The Japanese government is quietly urging the authorities in Seoul to meet the rebellion by proving that civilians and not the military are in charge. This means an early announcement of a timetable for a return to democracy.
At the same time, Tokyo admits it doesn't have a great deal of leverage in the matter -- Washington, on whose military arm the Koreans lean, is better placed.
Of particular concern to the Japanese is the fate of the arrested opposition politician Kim Dae Jung, whom the Army has accused of sedition. Mr. Kim was kidnapped from exile in Tokyo eight years ago and spirited back to Seoul to be tried and jailed for his antigovernment activities.
This act has marred Seoul-Tokyo relations ever since, and there is genuine concern in Japan that if Mr. Kim is brought to trial, any hope of calming the current situation will have been lost.
He would become a rallying point for all Koreans who had hoped for better things after President Park's death only to have their hopes seemingly dashed by Army hard-liners, Japanese officials privately believe.