August 12, 2012 — The relationship between South Korea and Japan has suffered its biggest setback in recent memory after President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented visit to Dokdo on Friday in a symbolic response to Tokyo’s growing claims to the islets.
Japan’s political right has increasingly voiced claims to Korea’s easternmost islets while pushing to become a “normal state” with a full-fledged military ahead of possible parliamentary polls.
“Many believe Prime Minister Noda may have to call an election as early as November, and nationalist sentiment may well push candidates to use President Lee’s visit to prod even more ostentatious shows of sovereignty,” said Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Five days before Liberation Day, Lee became the first head of state to visit the islets, signaling a shift from his government’s “low-key” policy. The government has maintained that any conspicuous spat over the islets, which have long been under Korea’s control, could ensnare it in an unnecessary dispute.
Observers said that Lee’s move indicates Seoul’s displeasure over Tokyo’s incessant territorial claim and lack of cooperation in settling issues related to its wartime atrocities that occurred during its 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
Since taking office in 2008, Lee has stressed a future-oriented policy toward Japan. He appears to have tried harder to enhance ties with Japan as Seoul seeks to better handle North Korean threats with the U.S. hoping for its two major allies to work closely together for regional security.
But Japan’s response to such efforts was far from satisfactory in Seoul’s view, amid political instability in Tokyo.
Despite the repeated calls for more efforts to resolve the issue of Korean women forced into sexual slavery during World War II, Japan still argues that all such issues were settled under a 1965 bilateral compensation deal.
Seoul has maintained that the issue is a humanitarian issue, and thus was separate from the deal signed when the two countries normalized their diplomatic relations.
The normalization deal came as the South was in dire need of economic assistance from outside to spur its development while Japan needed to mend fences with neighboring countries to enhance its post-war status.
Hurting bilateral ties even further, Japan has continued its territorial claim in its official diplomatic and defense documents, and school textbooks, and even called on Seoul to remove its description of the islets in Seoul’s diplomatic whitepaper as Korean territory.
As expected, Japan’s response to Lee’s visit to Dokdo was strong with its prime minister saying, “We can never accept it under any circumstances.”
Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said that his government would consider referring the case to the International Court of Justice, a move Seoul dismissed as part of Tokyo’s strategy to make the issue an international dispute.
Experts say that Japan will continue to maintain a hard-line stance on territorial issues as China and Russia will be watching its moves on Dokdo. Japan is mired in sovereignty disputes over the Senkaku Islands with China and Kuril Islands with Russia.
“China may carefully watch the developments of the Dokdo case … whether Japan will be stuck in a deadlock with South Korea or make some smart moves over the case,” said Chun In-young, professor emeritus at Seoul National University.
Japan’s claim to Dokdo will grow louder as Japan seeks to bolster its defense capabilities, experts said. The pursuit of stronger military might comes as it struggles to overcome its prolonged economic slump and reestablish its regional status.
Despite its constitutional ban on war-related activities, the Japanese prime ministerial panel has claimed the need to recognize Japan’s right for collective self-defense ― the use of force to respond to an attack on an ally, namely the U.S.
In June, Japan’s legislature passed the first revision in 34 years to the Atomic Energy Basic Act including “national security” among its goals, paving the way for the archipelago state’s nuclear armament.
As tension with Japan spikes, experts cast doubt over whether President Lee’s visit was strategically appropriate and timely. Some argue that with a flurry of international media reports over the visit, Dokdo has now been recognized as a disputed area.
“When it comes to a territorial issue, there should not be any concession. There is a need to strongly assert our sovereignty. But I am not sure whether his visit was properly timed and strategically appropriate,” said Kim Tae-hyun, international politics professor at Chung-Ang University.
Lee’s visit was made at a time the U.S. was striving to forge a strong security network of its allies in the Asia-Pacific region as the security landscape is changing amid the rise of China.
“His visit to Dokdo apparently caused concerns for Washington, which has sought to strengthen its alliances with its key Asian allies amid a strategic pivot toward the region. Any cracks in the Korea-Japan relationship would cause a problem for America’s diplomatic strategy,” said Chun of SNU.
“We should have a clear strategic vision in foreign policy. We clearly have things to cooperate on with Japan and the U.S. beyond historical issues.”
Experts also expressed concerns that Lee’s visit could further strengthen voices of the political right in Japan and reduce those of the moderate, pro-Korean figures. But they hoped the bilateral ties would improve after the leadership change in both countries.
“The better opportunity for diplomacy, however, is likely to come after elections, when leaders who are expected to stick around for a while can chart a more constructive course between Seoul and Tokyo,” said Cronin of the CNAS.