Japan-Korea Relations hit Rock Bottom

Relations between Japan and South Korea have fallen to their lowest level in years. It is reminiscent of the deep freeze between Japan and China that developed during the 1990s because of former premier Junichiro Koizumi’s habit of officially visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which includes World War I1 war criminals.

The immediate cause, of course, was the provocative August 10 visit by South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak to the disputed islets in the middle of the Sea of Japan (or as the Koreans would say, the East Sea) known to Koreans as the Dokdo islands and Takeshima to the Japanese.

The latest provocation wasn’t the only growing irritant between the two neighbors. It was presaged by the diplomatic debacle over a seemingly innocuous mutual agreement allowing for the Korean armed forces and Japanese self-defense forces to share intelligence and safeguard sensitive information.

Washington midwifed the deal, formally known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement, on the idea that it might help pave the way to increased formal military cooperation between Japan, Korea and the US to meet growing threats, leading ultimately to a “triple alliance” between the three countries.

Although Korean, Japanese and American naval vessels have conducted joint naval maneuvers most notably after the sinking of the Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010 and the shelling of an off-shore island, there is no formal cooperation among them. South Korea is a full ally of the US. Washington is treaty-bound to defend Japan.

However, the Koreans suddenly withdrew just one hour before the ceremony to sign the agreement on June 29. The proposed agreement had turned toxic in South Korea. The opposition leaped on it as an example of the conservative government coddling the ancient enemy; the minister in charge had to resign. It is possible that President Lee felt he had to visit the Dokdo in order to shore up his, and his party’s patriotic cred.

Irritants are escalating in other ways. Vandals struck the South Korean consulate in Hiroshima. There was concern that the bronze medal soccer match at the London Olympics between South Korea and Japan, which took place after Lee’s visit, might turn into a brawl reminiscent of the famous fight between Hungarians and Russians at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.

That did not happen, but one of the victorious South Korean players reportedly raised a sign in Korean saying “The Dokdo are ours” after the game. He was not visible on the medal stand, and the Olympic organizers were investigating whether he had broken the rule against making political statements.

President Lee seemed to rub salt on the wound when he complained, “Japan is not addressing the sense of injustice over colonial rule. . . Japan should sincerely apologize as it started a bad war, but it has not done so. That’s why pent up grievances are not resolved.”

Never mind that former Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan had already issued a formal apology expressing “deep remorse” and a “heartfelt apology” to the Korean people in 2010, on the 100th anniversary of Japan annexing Korea in 1910. He also returned cultural artifacts that Japanese had taken during the colonial period.

Japan responded to President Lee’s visit by recalling its ambassador. Planned high level exchanges such as Prime Minister Yoshihiku Noda’s planned visit to Korea in September are on hold. Tokyo proposed taking the dispute to the International Court of Justice for adjudication. That is an empty threat as both sides must abide by the decision, and neither is willing to dare a negative one.

The latest flare-up came at a time when Japan is also embroiled in controversy with China over the disputed islands in the East China Sea that the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese call the Daioyus. That was precipitated by Tokyo’s nationalistic governor Shintaro Ishihara’s proposal to have the city buy three of the uninhabited islands that are private property (even though nobody is allowed on them).

Prime Minister Noda immediately offered to have the national government buy the islands, which in fact Ishihara had promised to cede to the national government anyway. However the owners claimed they would only deal with Ishihara.

It is not clear what nationalizing the Senkakus would accomplish, other than poking Beijing in the eye since the issue is sovereignty, not ownership. Eye-poking is usually enough justification enough for the controversial, anti-Chinese nationalist Ishihara. He may think that change of ownership might make it easier for right-wingers to make provocative visits.

The Japanese government discourages anyone, Japanese or Chinese, from visiting the islands, since they are bound to rouse strong feelings on one side or the other. This includes right-wing lawmakers from Japan as well as buccaneers from the Chinese world.

This will be tested once again as a group of activists set sail from Hong Kong on Aug 12 bound for the Senkaku to be joined by a vessel with Taiwanese protesters, The one from China was not permitted to sail as Beijing disapproves of this kind of filibustering.

The activists presumably will try to evade the Japanese Coast Guard and plant their respective flags on one of the islands. Fifteen years ago a similar mission left Hong Kong and succeeded in temporarily occupying the island although one of the activists drowned. The picture with the usually antagonistic flags of China and Taiwan side by side took up the whole front page of the South China Morning Post under the banner headline: “Mission Accomplished.”

Beijing’s preferred method of protesting Japan’s occupation is to send semi-official fishing patrol craft into Japan’s claimed territorial waters. Two years ago one of them rammed a coast guard vessel, setting off a major row between Tokyo and Beijing, when the Japanese arrested the errant fishing boat captain (he was later released) and the Chinese temporarily cut shipments of rare earths used in the production of electronic gear.

It is hardly a coincidence that all of the participants are facing elections (or change of leaders, as in China) in the coming months and the participants are bent on parading their devotion to these historic claims. Korea’s is scheduled for December, when Lee must step down.

He is not allowed to run for a second term, but undoubtedly wants to make things easier for his party. Japan’s election has not been set but is expected to occur in October. That same month the Congress of the Chinese Communist party meet to pick the next generation of leaders. Islets, no matter how small, will remain in stormy seas.

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