South Korea and Japan have never been the most amicable neighbors. Ill-feelings resulting from Japan’s treatment of Korean’s during the Second World War still haunts many South Koreans.
A fresh diplomatic row between South Korea and Japan over The Liancourt Rocks, that dates back several centuries, may permanently damaged relations between these two Asian powers. South Korea refers to the islets as “Dokdo” while Japan refers to them as “Takeshima”. With the surprise visit of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to the group of islets has forced a publicly annoyed Japan to recall its ambassador in protest. The islets are spread over a relatively small area consisting of two main islets with dozens of smaller rocks that aren’t suitable for any human settlments and are surrounded by rich fishing grounds with large-scale deposits of natural gas. In total the land area for the islets is roughly 46.32 acres. Although South Korea has maintained its claim over the islets since 1954, Japan has raised international attention to the dispute by protesting South Korean claims over the islets.
Further, according to The Boston Globe, “Although the dispute is centuries old, it has heated up recently due to several incidents” which included, “a flip-flop last year by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names where they briefly labeled the rocks as having ‘Undesignated Sovereignty’ (undone by executive order within days), and the public observations in Japan of ‘Takeshima Day’ on February 22nd.”
The dispute has marred Japan-South Korean relations that otherwise have been closely alinged regarding North Korea. Their close co-operation particularly their shared concerns regarding North Korea’s on-going missile and nuclear weapons program has often married these two countries together. Lying almost midway between South Korea and Japan, the rocky volcanic outcrops in the Sea of Japan have a strategic importance for both South Korea and Japan. Perhaps to outmanoeuvre Japan, the South Korean president made his first-ever visit to the islants disregarding Japan’s stern warnings that the visit could strain relations between the two.
Not only that, President Lee toured the main island and also shook hands with military officers as a South Korean flag fluttered in the breeze, claiming, “Dokodo is our territory. We must keep it under our close guard.” In a rare display of his command over the disputed area, the visiting South Korean leader posed for a photograph before a rock painted with the slogan “ROK (South Korean) territory.”
Portending to possibly future strains, South Korea is preparing to build a naval base in the area with a view to ensure quick deployment of its own warships compared to that of Japan in the event of possible violence between Japan and South Korea. It is reported that once the naval base is completed, South Korean navy vessels could reach the disputed islands 75 minutes faster than that of any Japanese ships. South Korean presidential elections are in December. Although President Lee is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term, his nationalist agenda will inevitably be carried ahead by a successor.
Against this backdrop, Japan’s strong protest against South Korea highlighted by its decision to recall its ambassador is not a good omen for engaging North Korea over the stalled nuclear negotiations. The 21st century has been declared belonging to Asia, its progress and prosperity will eventually depend only on peaceful and cordial relations among them.