South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s surprise visit to Dokdo (known as Takeshima in Japan) over which Japan also claims sovereignty has worsened diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Seoul. On August 10, hours after Lee’s visit to the disputed territory, Japan recalled its ambassador to Seoul. Japan is also considering the putting off of “shuttle diplomacy” under which the leaders of both countries have held bilateral summit-level meetings annually. Tokyo is also mulling the idea of taking the dispute for arbitration in the International Court of Justice. These developments suggest that Japan-South Korea relations may deteriorate further in coming months.
Both Japan and South Korea have centuries’ old claims on the territory on which Lee landed on August 10. The territory, over which South Korea has had effective control since 1954, lies 157 kilometres northwest of Japan’s Oki island chain in the Sea of Japan (known as East Sea in South Korea). The Korean historical account suggests that Dokdo was incorporated in Korea in 512 AD during the Silla dynasty. However, Japan claims that the island has been part of its Shimane prefecture since 1905; at that time, the island was uninhabited. The debate over the sovereignty of the rocky outcrop has seen many diplomatic stand-offs between Seoul and Tokyo. In the recent past, it has been heating up since 2006 when Shimane prefecture started celebrating Takeshima day on February 22 every year.
In the past, Takeshima had served as a temporary watchtower for Japan during the Russo-Japanese war and for the United States during the Korean War. Therefore, it can be said that the island’s strategic location is fuelling the sovereignty debate. Takeshima/Dokdo has an area of just 0.08 square miles but sovereignty over it would allow Japan to gain control over 200 nautical miles of Exclusive Economic Zone around it and the resources that lie therein.
In recent years, Seoul has taken a series of steps to strengthen its claim over the island including the expansion of its naval airbase on the island of Ulleung, which is aimed at boosting the defence of nearby islands including Dokdo. The Japanese media, citing South Korean sources, has reported that South Korea aims to complete the expansion of its naval airbase in Ulleung by 2017, which will give it an effective edge over Tokyo to gain control of the disputed territory.
The unprecedented visit by Lee has surprised many political analysts both in Japan and Korea, since Lee from the start of his presidential term in 2008 has been trying to establish strong South Korea-Japan relations and on one occasion had even termed Japan as an “ally that is closest” to South Korea. He, in fact, tried his best to sign a military pact with Tokyo to share intelligence information between South Korean and Japanese defence forces before succumbing to public pressure and postponing a decision in this regard. A section of analysts both in Japan and South Korea see Lee’s visit as motivated by domestic concerns. The Asahi Shimbun, in its editorial, opined that “…Lee’s visit to the Islands appear to have been motivated more by domestic and political concerns than by the Takeshima dispute or any other diplomatic issue.” The daily added that “just as Lee began preparing for the final months of his term, set to end in February, his elder brother and some close aides were arrested in scandals. There is also growing discontent among South Koreans over widening gap in incomes.” In a somewhat similar analysis, Korea Times editorialised that “opposition parties were cool about Lee’s visit to Dokdo, dismissing it as a ‘political show’ intended to placate public opinion that turned sour in the wake of wrongdoings implicating his close relatives and key aides”. And it added that while “we do not know whether the trip is politically motivated”, Lee has freedom to visit any place on “our territory.”
Seen from the perspective of Japan-South Korea relations over the last two decades, Lee’s visit is not surprising. The relationship has seen many “warm and cold” phases and it has gone sour in the final year of presidential terms. South Korean columnist Oh Tae-kyu, based on his analysis of the Japan-South Korea love-hate relationship since the Kim Young-sam administration in the 1990s, has termed it the “final year syndrome.” He had predicted the same about Lee’s administration much before the latter’s visit to the contested territory.
However, the “final year syndrome” will likely have a long term impact on Japan-South Korea diplomatic relationship as Tokyo seems determined to take this issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Japan had proposed to South Korea that the matter be referred to the ICJ in 1954 and 1962, but South Korea refused to go down this path. At that time, foreign policy makers in Tokyo desisted from taking the issue to the ICJ considering that such a step would have adverse impact on bilateral relations. However, recent statements of Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba following Lee’s visit to the islets suggest that he is determined to take the issue to ICJ and possibly launch a diplomatic campaign to pressure South Korea into agreeing for an international arbitration. As per the ICJ convention, the body takes up issue for arbitration with mutual consent from parties contesting a territory. South Korea, on its part, as of now, has opposed a referral of the issue to ICJ since it enjoys effective control over the territory.
The Japan-South Korea diplomatic stand-off following Lee’s visit will have repercussions on bilateral and regional cooperation. In the near term it will have an adverse impact on Japan-South Korea economic relations. The two countries were very close to concluding an Economic Partnership Agreement. At the trilateral level, there have also been negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement between Japan, South Korea and China. Since Japan has indicated that it will suspend “shuttle diplomacy” there would be no meeting at the higher political level between the two countries. The standoff will also scuttle the chance to conclude two military agreements—Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement and General Security of Military Information Agreement—for which the two countries have prepared the ground since January 2011.
Tensions between the two neighbours have already been simmering over history and especially the ‘comfort women’ issue. To this has been added the territorial dispute with Lee’s visit to Takeshima/Dokdo. How the historical issues and territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan will pan out remains uncertain. But these irritants, if allowed to linger further, will affect their bilateral relations including the security cooperation they have envisaged given common regional security concerns. Since Japan and South Korea have announced many times that they share the common goal of ensuring peace and stability, the escalation of the territorial dispute and historical issues between the two neighbours will hinder that goal and will have wider implications for the security situation in the region.