The appointment of Paik Jin-hyun, a South Korean, to head the little-known International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) is likely to inflame tensions between Seoul and Japan over a long-standing but often overlooked territorial dispute.
Both Japan and South Korea lay claim to a tiny group of islands, Dokdo to the Koreans, Takeshima to the Japanese. Paik’s appointment is sparking fears in Tokyo that he will pursue Seoul’s agenda over the issue, with the weight of an entire UN organisation behind him. The move threatens to further complicate the already Byzantine geopolitics of the region and is likely to hinder efforts to confront the belligerent North Korean regime.
Unrelenting disputes over maritime outposts have deadlocked politics in Asia for years, and both Japan and South Korea remain uncompromising in their stances. Tribunals such as ITLOS could be used to find peaceful settlements of conflicts, but with Paik at the helm, Japan is unlikely to call on it or trust its arbitration. ITLOS has been mediating a maritime dispute between the Philippines and China, but has proven to be ineffective and is struggling to settle similar disputes involving historical titles and rights in other regions.
It is therefore unlikely that any potential future ITLOS decision on the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute would be adhered to in Tokyo. However, if the South China Sea sovereignty disputes carry one lesson, it is that symbolism is of the utmost importance. Matters of control are mostly symbolic in nature, yet they do have real effects on the region’s political climate and security. Both countries consider their claims to sovereignty irrefutable, which Seoul demonstrated by placing two government employees on the island for administrative purposes, while South Korean vessels are routinely conducting maritime surveys around the disputed islands.
Unsurprisingly, Japan considered such moves a provocation. When in January 2017, the governor of South Korea’s Gyeongsangbuk-do Province visited the islands, Japan lodged an official complaint with Seoul. It did the same in 2012, after South Korea invited a group of foreign journalists to the islands as part of a campaign to win international support for its claim. That same year, Tokyo offered to refer the issue to the International Court of Justice, but South Korea adamantly rejected the proposal.
Consequently, bilateral relations soured and – most significantly – led to a stalling of military cooperation on North Korea. Since South Korean President Moon Jae-in came to office in May, replacing the disgraced Park Geun-hye, a host of other tensions have distracted Tokyo and Seoul from making headway on containing the shared threat of North Korea. Moon is considered to be ‘softer” towards North Korea, keener on closer relations with Beijing and “revisionist” over Seoul’s historical rapprochement with Japan. It is no surprise that Moon takes an intransigent attitude towards the islands.
As the Kim Jong-un regime races towards nuclear breakout capacity that threatens regional peace, the island issue plays into a resentment of Japanese historic behaviour in Korea. Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910 and occupied it until the end of the Second World War. That Tokyo states that it incorporated Dokdo/Takeshima into Japanese territory in 1905 is unlikely to cut much ice with the South Korean government. This period still provokes anger in Korea over Japanese imperialism, a sentiment that Moon has sought to capitalise on in the context of the 2015 “comfort women agreement”.
Japan considers the comfort women issue settled. After years of negotiations, the two countries signed the agreement in 2015, which included compensation and an official apology from Japan. This was supposed to be “‘final and irreversible’”. Moon, however, has said he does not accept the deal and has ordered a review. Buses in Seoul have recently carried comfort women figurines in commemoration. These moves have angered Shinzo Abe’s government in Tokyo, which now believes that the South Korean fixation on the matter is entrenching anti-Japanese sentiments
There are hints that North Korea is cunningly attempting to exploit these divisions in order to pursue its aggressive policies. A missile launch in May landed near the Dokdo/Takeshima islands. By claiming the inlets, Japan argued the missile had landed in its Exclusive Economic Zone. While South Korean authorities refrained from making public comments regarding Japan’s statement, one expert hypothesised that behind closed doors, Seoul would be angrier at Japan for claiming the area than at Pyongyang for firing the missile.
With discord between the two countries mounting, South Korea’s approach is also unwittingly threatening regional unity in other ways. The country has wartime demons of its own it seems unwilling to confront. Seoul committed around 300,000 anti-communist troops to fight in the Vietnam War, largely in the central provinces. Some of these soldiers perpetrated ferocious atrocities against the local population, including rape. The 30,000 resulting mixed-race children, called Lai Dai Han in Vietnamese, have caused friction with Hanoi as South Korea refuses to officially recognise their existence.
Far from offering an official apology for the country’s sexual crimes, Moon praised South Korean troops in a recent speech, incensing the Vietnamese, who believe that the matter deserves recognition. This is the more important seeing as Vietnam itself could prove crucial in defusing the North Korean danger. Hanoi has maintained more cordial relations with Pyongyang than many of its neighbours and is considered a potential “bridge” between the United States and North Korea. However, if Seoul continues to ignore the Lai Dai Han issue, this eventuality appears less likely.
The obsession with historical grievances and sovereignty over tiny islands is worsening bilateral relations between nominal allies, Japan and South Korea, and is also threatening to undermine relations with Vietnam. In each case nationalist sentiment is getting in the way of uniting against the very real and present danger of the Kim regime, and ITLOS may now emerge as another factor stoking the flames. However, further deterioration of these relationships will only play into North Korea’s hands and increase the likelihood of more instability and uncertainty in the region.
Dokdo/Takeshima. Picture credit: Wikimedia