Tensions Rise Between Seoul and Tokyo as South Korea Holds Military Exercise on Dispute Islands

Last week, South Korea ran military exercises on Ulleung, part of a group of islets known as Dokdo in Seoul. Japan has another name for them – Takeshima – because Tokyo too claims the islets. The military drills have been held biannually since the 1990s and South Korea has maintained a small armed forces presence on the islets since the 1950s. 

A group of six lawmakers from Seoul also visited them both as a sign of sovereignty over the islands and as a response to Tokyo blocking shipments of smartphone components which South Korean companies rely on. Japan had recently removed its Asian neighbour from a white list of nations with “fast-track export status” to which South Korea responded by cancelling a military intelligence-sharing agreement. 

Bad Blood

Relations between South Korea and Japan have been rocky for the past century beginning with Japan annexing its neighbour in 1910. Under Japanese occupation, Koreans were subjected to slave labour both in factories and as sex workers. Korean women were infamously exploited as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers during World War II. 

After the war and the liberation of South Korea, its people did not forget the atrocities they endured while subjected to foreign rule and for decades, they feared Tokyo more than adversaries in Pyongyang according to former South Korean President Syngman Rhee. 

Then, in 1965, President Park Chung-hee helped thaw relations in the interest of an improved economy, or such was her stated intention. She managed to forge a peace treaty with Tokyo which guaranteed compensation, but that money did not go to South Koreans. Instead, it went into public works projects and, critically, Park’s coffers. Following a period of protests and martial law, economic cooperation between the two Asian states began to foster largely without incident. 

Final Apology

In 2015, Park negotiated a final agreement with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on comfort women which carried with it an apology and payment in the amount of $8.3 million for providing healthcare for victims. Both sides agreed it would be a “final and irreversible resolution” for the matter. 

“I hope that the two countries will cooperate closely to build trust based on this agreement and open a new relationship,” Park reportedly told Abe before agreeing to meet with him.

Of the 238 women who originally stepped forward as victims of the abuse, only a fraction – 46 – were still living when the agreement was reached. Historians estimate that tens of thousands of South Korean women were subjected to serve for the pleasure of Japanese soldiers. For some of those who came forward, the deal was not enough.

“The agreement does not reflect the views of former comfort women,” said one victim, Lee Yong-soo. “I will ignore it completely.” 

Intelligence Partners

A 2016 intelligence-sharing agreement also negotiated between Abe and Park promised a new day for relations between the two nations. Park was impeached, however, when it was revealed that she attempted to interfere with a court case in which former Korean slaves were suing Japanese companies. Park felt the case could cause relations to sour once again. In a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way, Park’s successor began to do just that by publicly rebuking the 2015 deal. 

President Moon Jae-in went a step further and shuttered a foundation designed to distribute reparations to survivors. A 2013 court decision against Japanese companies, the same one which Park had tried to alter, was upheld last year and when Japan refused to pay, Seoul moved to seize Japanese business assets in South Korea. This led to Japan retaliating last month by removing the export status for South Korea. Its economy, dominated by smartphones and other electronics, is threatened if manufactures cannot readily acquire computer chips and their components. 

So Moon withdrew his nation from the intelligence-sharing agreement which the United States helped broker amid increased tensions in Asia, primarily from the like of China. 

A century of bad blood and a recent setback in relations led Japan to put pressure on South Korea to abandon its claim to Dokdo. The Japanese government issued a statement condemning both the military exercise and the visit of South Korean lawmakers. 

The recent trouble has implications for US security in the region according to former Pentagon official Patrick Cronin. At a seminar, he claimed it would be “a clear and present danger to U.S. national security.” The alliance between Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul is critical to keeping China and Russia at bay, the former of which continues to escalate tensions in the South China Sea.