Asia's Giants Tangle Over Little Islands

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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.

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.

Japan responded to President Lee’s visit by recalling its ambassador. Planned high level exchanges, such as Prime Minister Yoshihiku Noda’s scheduled 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 do so.

The latest flare-up came at a time when Japan is also embroiled in controversy over the disputed islands in the East China Sea that the Japanese call the Senkaku and the Chinese call Daioyu. 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. (The owners, however, claimed they would only deal with Ishihara.)

It is not clear what nationalizing the Senkaku would accomplish aside from poking Beijing in the eye, since the issue is sovereignty, not ownership. Eye-poking is usually 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. Japanese police detained several Hong Kong activists on Wednesday after they planted a Chinese flag on one of the islands. China called for their unconditional release, and pledged to lodge an official complaint with Tokyo over the incident. 

Fifteen years ago a similar mission left Hong Kong and succeeded in temporarily occupying the island. 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. The Japanese arrested the errant fishing boat captain, who was released shortly thereafter.

It's hardly a coincidence that all of the antagonists 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 next presidential election is scheduled for December. While Lee is not allowed to run for a second term, he 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 will meet to pick its next generation of leaders. Cooler heads might prevail after leadership changes - or tensions might escalate.

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