Tensions between Japan and South Korea have escalated in recent days to a level that threatens the always fragile relations between the two key US allies in the Pacific. Much of the latest situation results from a disagreement between Seoul and Tokyo regarding the long-term dispute over territorial claims to Takeshima Island, as it is known in Japan, or if you prefer Dokdo Island, as it’s referred to in South Korea.
The “island” is little more than two desolate chunks of rock surrounded by some ninety smaller rocky outcroppings far away in an isolated little corner of the Sea of Japan. Also known as the Liancourt Rocks, this insignificant collection of largely barren clumps of stone have caused quite a stir among Pacific neighbor, not because of any intrinsic value attributed to such minute specks of land in a vast expanse of water, but because of what is believed to lie beneath the surface of the adjacent waters – rich deposits of highly-prized natural resources.
This collection of islets is located approximately midway between Japan and South Korea comprising a total landmass of barely 0.2 square kilometers. Disputes centered on sovereignty over the area stretch back to the 15th century. South Korea has effective control of the islets and maintains a force of approximately forty government personnel on Dokdo itself that includes coast guard personnel, police, lighthouse keepers, and personnel from the Fishery Ministry.
In an unexpected move, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak made a surprise visit to Dokdo on 9 August where he posed for photographs with coast guard personnel that included a South Korean flag flying prominently in the background.
During his visit to Dokdo/Takeshima, Lee criticized Japan for failing to accept responsibility for the cruel injustices inflicted upon Koreans during Japan’s colonial stewardship of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Lee encouraged Japan to “sincerely apologize” for its conduct during World War II and to exhibit a willingness to address the long-term grievances many elderly South Koreans harbor from the days of Japanese colonial rule.
President Lee said that his visit to the disputed territory was an effort to force Japan to recognize the importance of making amends for the travesties the nation inflicted upon innocent Korean citizens during the colonial period. Lee is quoted as saying that as a nation of power “Japan can resolve such issues if it decides to do so, but it has shown passive attitudes due to domestic political reasons. So I felt the need to show (Korean grievances) through action.”
In response, Tokyo recalled its ambassador to Seoul and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told reporters that Lee’s visit to the disputed area was “completely unacceptable” and “deeply regrettable.” South Korea’s diplomatic representatives in Tokyo were also summoned to the Foreign Ministry to be given notice of Japan’s strong protest.
Shortly after Lee’s visit, local Japanese news sources reported that Tokyo was giving serious consideration to cancelling a leadership summit scheduled for later this year. Prime Minister Noda was scheduled to travel to South Korea for meetings with high-ranking Korean representatives. President Lee traveled to Tokyo last December for a summit as part of what has come to be called “shuttle diplomacy” between the two nations.
Adding to the tense environment surrounding the two nations was a public demonstration at the London Olympics that also drew a strong protest from Tokyo. Shortly after the South Korean men’s soccer team defeated the Japanese team to capture the bronze medal, Korean midfielder Park Jong-woo scampered around the field in celebration holding aloft a banner printed with the message, “Dokdo is our land.” The banner was given to Park by a member of the audience and it is entirely possible he was unaware what message was printed on the banner. As punishment, Park was prohibited from attending the awards ceremony.
In response to the ongoing dispute with South Korea, Japan’s official responsible for overseeing Korean Peninsula issues said that a sideline bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Noda and President Lee during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit to be held in Vladivostok next month could not be confirmed. It is customary for Japanese leaders to hold sideline meetings with key participants during the APEC summit to discuss issues of mutual concern. Now, it appears rather unlikely that Japan or South Korea are inclined to engage in any meaningful sideline discussions this year.
Japan’s Foreign Minister, Koichiro Gemba, stirred the pot somewhat with an announcement on 10 August that Japan was considering asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to make a ruling on the Dokdo/Takeshima disagreement. South Korea has rejected the ICJ proposal repeatedly dating back to 1954 and it is extremely unlikely the issue will ever be presented to the court as both parties involved must agree to arbitration to validate any ruling the court might hand down.
Earlier this year, President Lee called upon Japan to take steps to arrive at a final resolution of South Korean grievances stemming from Japan’s wartime policy of forcing foreign women into sex slavery. Some of these “sex slaves,” many of them purportedly kidnapped from their homes in Korea, have survived to this day and have worked tirelessly to keep the issue in the public’s eye. Often called “Comfort Women,” the survivors continue in their demands that Japan should compensate them for the atrocities committed against them. Citizens throughout both North and South Korea have been infuriated by Japan’s failure to respond to the demands of these elderly ladies.
Last year, South Korean activists erected a statue of a girl symbolizing the victims of Japan’s wartime sex-slave policy in front of Japan’s embassy in Seoul to protest Tokyo’s refusal to discuss compensation for the surviving Korean “Comfort Women.” This move was widely approved by the South Korean public and forced Japanese officials to deliver an apology, but Tokyo held firm to their stance that the peace treaties signed at the end of World War II absolved the Japanese from paying any additional wartime compensation to aggrieved parties.
An historic agreement approving the sharing of sensitive information between the two nations scheduled for signing in June was called off at the last minute by Seoul in response to widespread public protests in South Korea. This accord would have marked the first time the two nations had agreed to join together in a military-related cooperative effort since the end of Japan’s colonial rule.
Adding even more fuel to the dispute, on 14 August President Lee publicly announced that Japan’s Emperor Akihito would have to make a sincere apology to the Korean people for Japan’s cruel wartime behavior should he ever wish to visit the South. During a meeting with school teachers Lee is quoted as saying, that should the Emperor wish “to visit South Korea, I wish he would visit and sincerely apologize for those who passed away while fighting for independence.”
Lee went on to say that the Emperor need not come to the South “if he is coming just to offer his ‘deepest regret,’” an apparent reference to the Emperor’s 1990 statement during a Tokyo banquet honoring former South Korean President Roh Tae Woo that he often thought of “the sufferings your people underwent during this unfortunate period, which was brought about by my country, and cannot but feel the deepest regret.”
Lee also insisted that he must be allowed to address the Japanese Diet as a condition of his making a formal state visit to Tokyo. A condition that is not likely to be honored. Lee said he would be pleased to visit Tokyo “if they allow me to speak my mind” in the Diet.
Although the two nations enjoy close economic ties and a long-term relationship with the United States, history has always been a source of irritation and intense rivalry played out on a global stage by the two Pacific neighbors. Rarely have the two nations engaged in a verbal altercation as vehement as this latest round of threats and public demands.