Tensions continue to flare between Japan and South Korea over territorial dispute

Updated On: Aug 15, 2012

Tensions between South Korea and Japan are continuing to flare, following President Lee Myung-bak's visit to a group of disputed islands last week. On Wednesday, a Japanese cabinet minister visited the Yasukuni Shrine, honouring Japan's war dead - including several now considered war criminals. The US has said it takes no position on the dispute, but urged its two Asian allies to "work this out together", as the US prepares for major annual joint military drills with South Korea next week.

Disputed Islands

South Korea is marking the 67th anniversary of its liberation from Japan this week, on Wednesday, 15 August. Liberation Day marks South Korea’s independence from colonial Japan in 1945 after a thirty-five year rule. The anniversary comes as tensions are flaring between South Korea and Japan, over disputed islands. Last Friday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the disputed islets, making him the first South Korean president to do so.

The islands in question are known by the South Koreans as the Dokdo Islands, and by the Japanese as Takeshima.  Currently, the islands are controlled by Seoul, with a South Korean coastguard detachment having been stationed on the island since 1954.

Besides being an issue of nationalistic pride, one of the reasons the sovereignty of the islands are disputed is because the islands are situated in good fishing grounds, and there is a possibility that there may be underwater gas reserves in the area as well.

A group of South Korean swimmers, led by singer Kim Jang-Hoon, have embarked on a swim to the Dokdo Islands, and are expected to reach the area by Wednesday. The dispute has even surfaced at the recently concluded London Olympics. South Korean soccer player Park Jong Woo displayed a politically-sensitive sign supporting Seoul’s claim to sovereignty over the disputed islets, following South Korea’s bronze medal victory match over Japan.

On Wednesday, a Japanese cabinet member visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, adding to tensions with South Korea. The visit by Jin Matsubara, the National Public Safety Commission chairman, was the first trip to the shrine by a cabinet member since the Democratic Party came to power in 2009. Mr. Matsubara claims he visited the shrine as a private citizen, against the advice of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is dedicated to nearly 2.5 million Japanese killed in wartime - but among those names are several that are now considered war criminals from the Second World War. Many of Japan's neighbours see visits by politicians to the shrine as a highly insensitive move.


One of the major implications of President Lee’s trip is its ramifications for diplomatic ties.  Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba had earlier warned that President Lee’s trip “would have a great impact on Japan-South Korea relations”.  Already, Japan has summoned the South Korean envoy to Tokyo and recalled its ambassador from Seoul. Japan has also threatened to bring the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice.

Japanese media reports say Tokyo is considering suspending bilateral talks with South Korea, originally expected to occur on the sidelines of APEC meetings in Russia next month. A future visit by the Japanese premier to South Korea may also be called off.

Relations between Japan and South Korea are already at a low point and this incident only serves to heighten bilateral tensions.

The dispute also has security implications for the Asia-Pacific region.  Earlier this year in June, a bilateral military agreement, which would have enabled both sides to share military information, between Japan and South Korea fell through after South Korea called off the signing at the last minute.  The bilateral military agreement would have been the first one signed between the two nations since 1945.

This means that South Korea and Japan would now be unable to exchange important classified information about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, hindering efforts for improving joint security capabilities, and potentially putting the security of the Korean Peninsula and Asia-Pacific region at greater risk.

Ramifications for the US

Analysts say the worsening dispute between Japan and South Korea could jeopardize United States policy in the Asia-Pacific region. The US has sought to boost cooperation between its allies as part of its focus on Asia.

The latest tensions represent a substantial shift from just a few months ago, when US officials hoped that Japan and South Korea had resolved their differences, allowing the three countries to increasingly work together.

"We take no position on this territorial dispute. We want to see our two strong Pacific allies work this out together and work it out through consensus," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday.

Joint US and South Korea Military Exercise Next Week

Next week, US and South Korean forces will stage an annual military drill. The annual Ulji Freedom Guardian exercise will run from 20 August through 31 August, mobilizing some 56,000 South Korean troops and 30,000 US soldiers. North Korea has already protested the exercise. Earlier this month, North Korean state media called the exercises an "all-out war rehearsal".

Report: S. Korea-Japan Dispute Could Affect U.S. Plans for Asia [Voice of America, 14 Aug 2012]

Report: S. Koreans start 230 km swim to disputed islands [Straits Times (AFP), 13 Aug 2012]

Analysis: South Korean President's Trip Strains Japan Relations, Impedes Allied Cooperation [The Heritage Foundation, 13 Aug 2012]

Report: South Koreans swim to disputed islands amid Japan row [BBC News, 13 Aug 2012]

Report: Politics keeps South Korean soccer player off medal podium [CNN, 13 Aug 2012]

Report: Profile: Dokdo/Takeshima islands [BBC News, 10 Aug 2012]

North Korean Leader's Uncle in Beijing for Economic Talks

On the other side of the Korean Peninsula, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle has been spotted in Beijing. Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, is there for the third of a series of talks on the joint development of two special economic zones along the North Korea-China border.  The Hwanggumphyong and Wihwado Economic Zones are to be developed on two islands in the estuary of the Yalu River. On Tuesday, Beijing confirmed that agreements had been signed on the joint development of these zones.

Jang, the vice-chairman of North Korea’s National Defence Commission, is believed to be the main power behind Kim Jong Un, and a strong advocate of economic reforms in North Korea.  Jang’s visit to Beijing could be a sign that the impoverished country is finally working towards economic reforms and a revival of their dire economy.  It is also a signal that Kim wants to put an end to the isolationist policies enacted by his father, the late Kim Jong-Il.

The United States has responded to the news with hope that North Korea will change for the sake of its people’s welfare.  US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “They can open their country, come back into compliance and live in a place that respects human rights, respects the needs of their people, or they can keep doing what they’ve been doing and continue to face isolation and continue to face misery”.

For the sake well-being of the people in a country unable to provide even basic food security, one can only hope that reforms are imminent in Pyongyang.

Report: N. Korean leader’s uncles heads to China for talks [Straits Times, 14 Aug 2012]

Report: Powerful uncle of North Korea leader in China to talk business [TODAY, 14 Aug 2012]

Report: North Korea: Kim Jong-un’s uncle in China visit [BBC News, 14 Aug 2012]

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