Japanese-South Korean Relations on the Rocks

An island dispute resurfaces after South Korea delayed implementation of an intelligence sharing agreement with Japan.

President Lee Myung-bak is greeted at Seoul airport, May 5
President Lee Myung-bak is greeted at Seoul airport, May 5 (Cheongwadae)

On Friday, Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea after President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented visit by a sitting president to disputed islands in the Sea of Japan. The rocky outcrop of islands, known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, are claimed as sovereign territory by both governments and is believed to contain vast deposits of natural resources.

President Lee landed on one of the Dokdo islands by helicopter and stayed there for a little over an hour to eat pizza and chicken with South Korean policeman stationed in the territory.

The visit was apparently driven by domestic public opinion as the Lee Administration has been grappling with corruption scandals and accusations from the political opposition of being too pro-Japanese.

The Lee government came under fire domestically because, earlier this year, Japan and South Korea announced the conclusion of a landmark intelligence sharing agreement. The latter was forced to put off signing it due to the loud negative reaction it received from the public.

Charges of being pro-Japanese remain sensitive in South Korea from the raw emotions that still exist over atrocities committed by the Japanese military against Koreans during the occupation until the end of World War II.

However, the response and apparent willingness of the South Korean government to stoke nationalism over the islands dispute to serve domestic political needs is threatening relations with Japan and contributing to simmering tensions across East Asia among claimant countries to disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The repercussions were also felt in the London Olympics over the weekend after South Korea defeated Japan in the bronze medal soccer game and a South Korean player was refused the awarding of his medal when he produced a political sign with nationalist wording regarding South Korea’s sovereignty over the Dokdo Islands.

The strain in relations comes amid the backdrop of a renewed focus on East Asia as a result of the Asian “pivot” by the United States which is meant to counter the increasing influence of China and to reassure the security concerns of smaller allied and nonallied countries in the region.

As part of this strategy, the United States supported more direct security cooperation between its close allies Japan and South Korea. The intelligence sharing agreement was seen as a major step in that direction.

The Lee government must be careful and not take the island dispute too far to see relations with Japan irreparably damaged. Japan would do well to recognize the predicament that the Lee government found itself in after the agreement was announced and take further steps to soothe Korean public opinion of Japan. In the end, the security of East Asia is the paramount goal of all involved and should not continue to be held hostage by actions in the past.

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