How a marine survey in disputed waters is affecting South Korea’s long turbulent ties with Japan
- Tokyo lodged official protests after a South Korean survey vessel was detected in waters near the islets known as Dokdo by Seoul, and Takeshima in Japan
- Complicated relations stem from differing views on Imperial Japan’s treatment of colonial Korea, and the abuse of World War II comfort women from Korea
Tokyo, however, insists the territory is Japanese and therefore the vessel was illegally operating within Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
On Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno reiterated Japan’s long-standing position on the dispute, saying, “The Takeshima islets are obviously part of Japan’s inherent territory and the series of South Korean actions is unacceptable.”
According to the Japanese side, the Hae Yang 2000 surveying vessel was conducting inspections some 90km north of the islands. The ship is operated by the state-run Korean Hydrographic and Oceanographic Agency.
South Korea responded by stating it cannot accept the Japanese complaint as the survey was a “legitimate act” carried out in accordance with domestic and international law.
The two countries even disagree strongly on the name of the body of water that separates them; Seoul wants it to be known as the East Sea, but Tokyo insists on the Sea of Japan.
With Yoon coming to power in early May, there had been clear signs he was willing to at least sideline some of the issues, but the surveying vessel may have set the improving relationship back once more.
“I believe that the plan to carry out the survey was organised some time ago, certainly before Yoon came to power, so it is possible that he was not even aware that it was going to happen,” said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor of politics and international relations at Tokyo’s Waseda University.
“Even if that was the case, it puts both sides in a difficult position and it could be damaging,” he said. “The Japanese side wants the Koreans not to do anything that is going to provoke negative feelings on both sides as they do not want to go back to the strongly worded editorials or the consumer boycotts.
“Japan just wants things to be calm,” he said. “On the other hand, Yoon cannot suddenly end the survey because it will look to the Korean media and public as if he is giving in to Japanese pressure on the issue. That would be very serious to his support rate and the last thing that he needs so early into his presidency is the loss of public support.”
Shigemura anticipates that now both sides have once again stated their positions on the issue, Tokyo and Seoul will try to de-escalate the situation by avoiding further potential confrontations.
“They are in quite similar situations in some ways,” he said. “The levels of hostility towards South Korea are quite high in Japan as well and Kishida is the leader of a conservative party that will insist on taking a strong line.”
Kishida will also be acutely aware that he is facing an election for the Upper House of the Diet in a matter of weeks, Brown said.
“I think the Japanese government is going to play this very carefully,” he said. “Their approach on every issue at the moment seems to be an excess of caution and trying not to put a foot wrong, not to make an unforced error.”
The tactic would appear to be a reaction that is sufficiently strong for domestic consumption, but not too strong that it provokes an angry response from Seoul, he said.
There have been indications the two governments are looking to work through their differences, however, with government sources in Tokyo suggesting Japan is trying to arrange a meeting of foreign ministers. If the dialogue does go ahead, it will be the first face-to-face ministerial talks between the two nations since November 2019.