Asia's Giants Tangle Over Little Islands

By Todd Crowell

TOKYO - 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 II war criminals.

The immediate cause, of course, was the provocative Aug. 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.

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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 assumption that it might help pave the way to increased formal military cooperation between Japan, Korea and the U.S. 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 by North Korea - there is no formal cooperation among them. South Korea is a full ally of the U.S., and Washington is treaty-bound to defend Japan.

The Koreans, however, withdrew from the deal just one hour before the signing ceremony on June 29. The proposed accord 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, and 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 violent (reminiscent of the infamous brawl 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 that read “the Dokdo are ours” after the match. 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 in 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 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 the Japanese had taken during the colonial period.

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Todd Crowell is the author of Farewell, My Colony: Last Years in the Life of British Hong Kong. He is compiling a Dictionary of the Modern Asian Language and comments on Asian affairs at Asia Cable (
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