South Korea takes hard line with Tokyo as relations sour

Seoul toughens approach to Tokyo as relations with its former colonial master sour over current issues and old divisions resurface

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 4:52pm

Japan says its seafood is safe, South Korea imposes a ban because of fears of nuclear contamination. Japan seeks world heritage status for wartime buildings, South Korea declares the moves insensitive. Scholars revisit Japan's colonial rule of Korea in a textbook, and South Korean critics demand it be edited so as not to glorify Japanese domination.

The already strained ties between Japan and South Korea are coming under additional stresses as the two governments exchange new accusations over a series of old arguments.

Seoul is being visibly more forceful in its dealings with Tokyo, a legacy of the arrival of the conservative administration Park Geun-hye, elected president in January, but coming up against an equally conservative government in Japan.

"From the Korean point of view, the years of Japan's colonial rule cannot simply be forgotten," said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University. "Unfortunately, there are very few policy-makers in Japan - and that includes Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - who really grasp that.

The sharpest point of conflict, however, may be a latter day issue. Tokyo is incensed that South Korea imposed a blanket ban on September 9 on imports of fish from eight prefectures on the northeast coast that are close to the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant.

An official of Japan's Fisheries Agency travelled to Seoul on Monday for talks with bureaucrats from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, during which the Japanese side provided the most recent data on steps that have been introduced to ensure that fisheries products are safe and that leaks of radioactive water from the crippled nuclear plant are being managed.

That message is likely to have been significantly undermined by reports that Tokyo Electric Power Co. released more than 1,000 tonnes of water contaminated with radioactive strontium into the Pacific on Tuesday, after a major typhoon hit the region and heavy rain breached the enclosures around tanks storing radioactive water.

Tokyo insists, however, that South Korea's decision to ban Japanese maritime imports is not based on the scientific evidence. Japanese officials have been lobbying - without success - to have the ban lifted.

The sense in Japan that Seoul is simply being bloody-minded towards its neighbour was heightened Tuesday by reports that South Korea is opposed to Japan's plans to have a number of historical industrial facilities registered on Unesco's list of World Heritage cultural sites.

Tokyo wants the 20 facilities, which include the Yawata Steel Works in Fukuoka and a shipyard in nearby Nagasaki, to be added to the list in 2015.

South Korea objects because hundreds of Koreans were forced to work at the various plants during the years of Japan's colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

"Japan is not trying to be provocative with these actions; it just has no understanding of what truly went on during the colonial era and does not understand why Koreans feel this way about these issues," Dujarric said.

Another indicator of the way in which the wind is blowing in Korea is the climbdown by a group of historians who had written a new history text book for schools. Despite being approved by the government, public reaction was so forceful against what were perceived as "glorifications" of the years of Japan's colonial rule that the authors have agreed to revise the book before its final release.

President Park has other - more personal - reasons for being more forceful with Japan, Professor Dujarric points out. "One problem that she has is that her father was an officer in the Japanese army during the war and served in Manchuko," he said.

"She has been on the defensive on that issue, but she certainly can't be seen to be a lackey of Japan when it comes to these areas of dispute."