Korean president flies into new Dokdo dispute

Lee Myung-bak on the Dodko Islands. Photo Office of the President of the Republic of Korea

By Jens Wardenaer, Research Analyst and Editorial Assistant

After South Korea beat Japan in the Olympic football bronze-medal match last week, a Korean player was barred from the medal ceremony for brandishing a sign that promoted Korea’s claim to a set of disputed rocks in the Sea of Japan (or the East Sea). The athlete’s banner supported Korea’s ownership of the Dokdo islands (called Takeshima in Japan, which also claims them).

Only hours before, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak had done something unprecedented for a Korean leader: he landed on the islets (above) and proclaimed that they were worth defending ‘with our lives’.

A small force of Korean police has been stationed on the largest of the islands since 1954; otherwise only two elderly citizens live there.

Lee had previously been seen as less combative over the issue – indeed the two countries’ bilateral relationship was fairly good. However, reports from Seoul say he had planned to visit for years, supposedly because of Japan’s refusal to discuss the issue of Korean ‘comfort women’ (women forced into sexual slavery during World War Two).

The dispute is emotional, as Koreans (and Chinese) feel that Japan has not sufficiently atoned for its wartime atrocities. Apologies by some Japanese politicians have invariably been negated by provocative nationalist acts by others. Two Japanese ministers announced on the same day as Lee’s Dokdo visit that they would visit the Yasukuni shrine to Japan’s war dead, where so-called ‘Class A’ war criminals are also interred. Visits to the shrine have caused earlier diplomatic spats.

After Lee’s visit, Japan summoned the Korean ambassador in Tokyo, recalled its ambassador to Seoul and said that it would refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). South Korea has said it will reject the proposal, and under ICJ rules, both parties to a dispute must agree to submit it to the court before it will adjudicate on the issue.

Japan has tried to take the issue to the ICJ twice before, in 1954 and 1962. Seoul rejected both attempts. It says Japan is trying to internationalise the issue, and that it will not take the case to the ICJ because the rocks are undeniably Korean territory. The islets are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and possible gas deposits. Japan also has territorial disputes with China (over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands) and Russia (over the Kurils).

Washington, a close ally of both countries, said it had not had prior notification from Seoul of Lee’s trip.

There are fears that talks over an Economic Partnership Agreement will now be put on hold, despite the two economies’ growing interdependence. Attempting to limit the damage, a Korean government source said that Seoul would freeze plans to build a research base off the islands.

President Lee will not stand again for office in elections this December, but he may have felt it necessary to shore up his party’s image before the poll. The island trip came ahead of the 67th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan tomorrow (15 August). The visit also follows a controversy over a set of military cooperation agreements with Japan: the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA).

The GSOMIA would facilitate the sharing of military intelligence, primarily regarding North Korea, as well as search-and-rescue information. Seoul would particularly benefit from shared intelligence from Japan’s six Aegis-equipped destroyers and airborne early warning and control systems.

The ACSA would cover the provision of food, fuel and medical supplies in joint military activities such as search-and-rescue and humanitarian operations. Controversially it would also allow Japanese soldiers to enter Korea in case of a humanitarian emergency.

Seoul attempted to pass these agreements on the quiet, but the idea of cooperation with an old colonial power provoked a public outcry in Korea anyway and both deals were postponed indefinitely.

President Lee’s conservative Saenuri Party is the only one that would conceivably sign such an agreement, as anti-Japanese feeling runs even stronger in the opposition. His visit to the islets might have provided the political capital needed to pass the military cooperation agreements with Japan – but not in an election year, and especially not when his party’s presidential candidate is the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, who was an officer in the imperial Japanese military.

Interestingly, a recent poll seemed to find that disapproval of the military pacts with Japan stemmed in large part from dissatisfaction with President Lee’s performance, and not just anti-Japanese sentiment. President Lee has also suffered from corruption scandals in his close circle. His brother and adviser, Lee Sang-deuk, was arrested for accepting bribes, and the president may have judged that he needed to distract the public from this. If true, his island-hopping may have been astute domestic politics, but it seems rash and unnecessary from a strategic point of view.


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