Japan-South Korea spat? Business as usual
August 22nd, 2012
06:57 PM ET

Japan-South Korea spat? Business as usual

By Hyung-Gu Lynn, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Hyung-Gu Lynn is AECL/KEPCO Chair in Korean Research at the University of British Columbia. The views expressed are the author’s own.

The spat between Japan and South Korea over two islets, known as Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese, and Liancourt Rocks in some international registers, has been propelled into global headlines by an unusual convergence of events. The tightly contested Olympic bronze medal match in men’s soccer; the first visit by a sitting South Korean president (Lee Myung-bak) to the islets; Japan’s withdrawal of its ambassador from Seoul; and the escalating tensions between Japan, China, and Taiwan over competing claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, have sparked what looks at first glance like a rapid deterioration in relations between East Asia’s economic powers.

However, despite the handwringing and diplomatic posturing, I’d argue that the Korea-Japan disputes aren’t all that unusual. In fact, the latest tussle is merely the most recent example of a pattern of incremental increases in bilateral economic, cultural, political and even security exchanges, punctuated on a nearly annual basis by disagreements over interpretations of history.

It doesn’t take much searching of news archives to find similar cries of concern in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s that historical disputes – whether over the content of school textbooks, interpretations of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea (1910-1945), forms of compensation to the “comfort women,” sincerity or lack thereof of Japanese apologies for colonial rule, and Dokdo/Takeshima – could seriously undermine bilateral relations. Yet in all previous cases, despite remonstrations and demonstrations, planned agreements were signed and events hosted, even if the timing was sometimes delayed.

The point isn’t merely that similar disputes have occurred in the past and therefore that this is much ado about nothing. There are undoubtedly important issues at stake, first and foremost among them interpretations of modern history that affect perceptions of national identity, pride, justice, and trustworthiness. For many in Korea, Japanese claims to the islands are seen as reflecting a lack of reflection and contrition about the country’s colonial past. Also, fishing rights, which both countries have treated separately from ownership due to prolonged deadlocks over the issue prior to the first and second fisheries agreements of 1965 and 1998, are significant economic factors. Access to oil and mineral resources are also long-term considerations.

It’s true that right now, grassroots neo-nationalist organizations in Japan seem to have gained momentum in post-Fukushima Japan, with these groups often spewing vitriol towards South Korea and Korean residents in Japan (as well China and North Korea). And Lee’s visit, meanwhile, has helped deflect public attention, at least for now, from the various corruption and bribery scandals surrounding his faction within the conservative ruling party and his own family, as well as from the political blunder of trying to sneak in a bilateral military cooperation pact with Japan this year (the signing of which has been put off indefinitely due to public and opposition party protests).

But the point that must be kept in mind is that structural constraints created by the Treaty of Normalization and accompanying agreements signed in 1965 by South Korea and Tokyo mean that the tussles over interpretations of history and Dokdo/Takeshima and other historical issues will continue at the political level for the foreseeable future.

Ownership of Dokdo/Takeshima was one of the major stumbling blocks over the seven official rounds of negotiations between 1951 and 1965, and both sides ultimately agreed to elide the item from the Treaty. The 1965 Treaty also included deliberately ambiguous wording regarding the 1910 Treaty of Annexation: “It is confirmed that all treaties or agreements concluded between the Empire of Japan and the Empire of Korea on or before August 22, 1910 are already null and void.” This left room for two distinct interpretations: Seoul’s view that the 1910 treaty was illegal to begin with, something confirmed in 1965, and Tokyo’s view that the 1910 treaty was legal, but confirmed to be no longer in effect as of 1965. In addition, the accompanying 1965 Agreement on Economic Cooperation and Property Rights noted that, “all property, rights, and profits claims by the two countries and citizens of the countries based on the San Francisco Peace Treaty Article 4 [reparations definitions] are considered completely and finally settled as a result of the Treaty.”

This provides the basis of Tokyo’s position that there is no legal requirement for the provision of official apologies for specific policies or government organized compensation to “comfort women.” Seoul promulgated domestic laws in 1966 and 1971 to distribute $300 million received from Japan as outright grants from the 1965 Treaty to individual property claims stemming from the period of Japanese rule. However, neither the 1965 Treaty nor the two South Korean domestic laws mentioned “comfort women” in its list of categories eligible for compensation or property claims, and none of the above instruments had clauses that covered future items not included under the original list of eligible claims.

In the meantime, Japan and South Korea have remained bound through a complex web of ties. The two countries remain mutually key sources of trade and sources of investment. Travelers from Japan top the list of tourists entering South Korea, while South Korean tourists also comprise the largest nationality among visitors to Japan. South Korea is the second most popular destination for Japanese travelers after China, and Japan is the most popular for travelers from South Korea. There are countless other bilateral cultural, educational, economic, political, and even military exchanges.

So how to cut through this apparent Gordian knot of historical legacies of colonialism, the Cold War, and clearly indispensable bilateral ties? Clearly, if the answer were simple enough to be explicated in a single blog, these recurring clashes would have ceased a long time ago. But at the same time, the solution has already been laid out in principle at least in the 1965 Agreement on Economic Cooperation and Property Rights, whose Article III states, “Any dispute between the High Contracting Parties concerning the interpretation or the implementation of this Agreement shall be settled primarily through diplomatic channels.”

The issue, of course, is what “diplomacy” should entail. But history indicates that both sides will eventually draw back from public posturing, and simply avoid or delay addressing historical issues, while exchanges and flows will continue to grow until the next flare-up.

Ultimately, serious and sustained research, education, and public outreach will likely have more productive long-term effects on bilateral relations than diplomatic posturing or brick throwing – figurative or literal.

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Topics: Asia • Japan • South Korea

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soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Patrick-2

    The U.S. needs to stay out of this and let J apan and South Korea settle this on their own! J apan and North Korea, on the other hand, need to improve ties between their countries and do business with each other.

    August 22, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
    • Jay

      What I don't get is why the South Koreans need to write a song about owning "Dokdo" and even go to the extreme of a "Dokdo" dance. Could someone explain the necessity of this?

      August 27, 2012 at 1:55 am | Reply
      • marketchen

        Some Koreans commit suicide or burn themselves to claim that the islets are Koreans. Don't seem sane.

        August 27, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
      • eseul

        Then imagine German Nazi's parading their past of all the horrible things they did the Jewish people. Then they claim "oh years ago, we already gave you money. isn't that enough? We apologized get over it. What a bunch of cry babies. I don't understand them." This is not about money, we just want the government to sincerely apologize.

        Dokdo to Korea is symbolizing that we won't just sit down and take being bullied upon.

        September 17, 2012 at 1:14 am |
      • jess

        hey, South Koreans do that cause they think that's 'necessary'. You are not in their shoes and I think you don't have any knowledge about them. -that means you don't have right to determine whether their actions are 'necessary'
        and marketchen? Whether some Koreans commit suicide for their value is none of your bussiness. That means Dokdo is very imporant to them. I wonder if you did any effort to understand Koreans or history.

        May 12, 2013 at 7:58 am |
  2. Yutaka Yazawa

    We cannot afford "business as usual" in Asia now.

    August 22, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  3. trainspotting

    What I noticed in this article is this two big rocks considered as just islets not islands.
    Islets should not be on the table of land issue. so waste of time

    August 22, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Reply
    • eseul

      It's really small. However, it's extremely abundant in resources. TONS of migratory fish are pulled from this place. Since it's a volcanic island lots of different rocks can be found here. natural gas is also said to be present here. Not only gas, a bucket load of petroleum. Plus, it's a good buffer zone for defense and military strategy.

      It's like a small treasure chest.

      August 23, 2012 at 3:17 am | Reply

      Ownership of these 'rocks' changes the boundaries of the exclusive economic zone for resource extraction and fishing. Potentially very lucrative in light of the latest estimates of resources in the area.

      August 23, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Reply
  4. Adam

    I just finished writing a tome to CNN, asking them to reinstate Mr. Zakaria after two dull weeks of the same headlines, analysis, and talking points on all other shows only to learn the reinstatement was already announced last week. You see?! Without Mr. Zakaria we are lost. At least I was. So welcome back! Can we please get started?!

    August 22, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Reply
    • 100 % ETHIO

      I very much agree with your opinion.
      We the bloggers and CNN audiences, we very-much like Dr. Zakaria, than anyone at CNN.
      The conflicts are internal-Politics that sidekick Dr. Zakaria, by ethno-politically motivated Jews groups. Nothing else!

      My advise to the Jewish who are ethnically and politically motivated to commit disadvantages against non-Jews is not acceptable and it's bias. Let Dr. Zakaria speak from his Mind. Stop controlling his thoughts and free speeches.

      Historically, America is established by the Great Britain Armies only. During that hardships, wars and starvation, there weren't any single Jew faced the hardships and accompanied the Great British Armies.
      Those who came after America established by Great Britain are Slaves, unprofessionals/who were being kicked-out by their own people, from East and South Europe. After the 20 Century, the door has been open for investors, either Academically and/or Financially.

      ...check your history.....

      August 23, 2012 at 12:42 am | Reply
  5. 100 % ETHIO

    I don't think of any Country without border sharing, except Australia and Madagascar.
    For most Countries, even if they get back the border they are claiming, they are not going to do anything much better than the Land they already hold. The damages that would caused because of border disputes will have very-bad consequences than it provides.

    August 23, 2012 at 12:13 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    The relationship and the ties between Nippon and South Korea can best compared to those between France and Germany. In both cases the one country had been victim of the damage inflicted by the other. France and Germany had shared a lot with each other, historically and culturally, although they don't speak the same language. Nippon and South Korea share even more, as their two languages belong to the same family. So the spat they have will not sour their long-term relationship.

    August 23, 2012 at 7:16 am | Reply
    • Quigley

      Russia and Poland had the same relationship, j.von hettllingen. Even the Communists in both countries couldn't change that after WW2, no matter how hard they tried. Their animosity goes back almost 1000 years!

      August 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  7. JosephMcCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007©™/JoeCollins/J.Foster Dulles/Marine5484/OldManClark

    I am the same guy. I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti-American, anti GB, anti-Semite, anti-India, anti-modern anything because I am a good Moslem. I have stolen Patrick’s moniker because I am so ashamed of myself and I post the most stupid comments because I am an imbecile. When people get angry with me, I claim they are the stupid ones. If I am not careful, my brain will explode because it is so full of hate.

    August 23, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  8. Korea

    Dokdo is belong to Korea!!

    August 24, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Reply

    Clearly, Dokdo belongs to Korea!
    I'm sure!!

    August 25, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  10. pak

    Watch these videos:
    Do you know the reason why Dokdo is Not Korea Land?
    : http://youtu.be/zeoH8-bVhPw
    Does there exist any old Korean map which depicted Takeshima/Dokdo?
    : http://youtu.be/H91QN6ho8jU

    August 26, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  11. marketchen

    check out the video:


    August 27, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  12. marketchen

    Just go to CIJ. If Korea refuses to go to CIJ, then it means that they admit their claims are false.

    August 27, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
    • K

      It's because it is rightfully theirs. Why even bother to argue if it's already Korean's?

      September 8, 2012 at 10:07 am | Reply
  13. kp

    dokdo belongs to korea the end.

    October 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
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    October 19, 2012 at 4:36 am | Reply
  15. philly

    I don't understand the reactions written up here. This could be an issue of some other country outside of the United States, but we should be aware of the issues which could threaten us later in the future. Go to CIJ? Why should they even claim when it's already theirs?

    March 17, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Reply

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