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Simmering discontent between Japan and South Korea over Pacific Island

Dr. Sudhanshu Tripathi - 9/18/2012

The just erupted face-off between South Korea and Japan over islands in Pacific may put in jeopardy the peace and security of entire Asia in, unfortunately, today’s world when geo-politics is moving towards East.

With the surprise visit of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean on Friday just passed by, its decades long territorial dispute with its former colonial ruler Japan as regards claim over these isles has flared up, forcing much annoyed Japan to recall its ambassador in protest. These disputed isles known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokodo in South Korea are spread over around less than 0.2 sq. km. in area and are surrounded by rich fishing grounds with likely large-scale deposits of natural gas. Although South Korea has maintained its claim over it since 1954, yet the dispute so emerged has from-to-time marred their otherwise close cooperation between them particularly their shared concerns at North Korea’s on-going missile and nuclear weapons programme.

Lying almost midway between South Korea and Japan, the rocky volcanic outcrops in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) has its strategic importance both for South Korea and Japan. Perhaps to outmanoeuvre Japan, the South Korean President solemnised his first-ever visit here disregarding Japan’s stern warnings that the visit would strain the already tense relations between them. Not only that, President Lee toured the main island and also shook hands with coast guards as a South Korean flag fluttered in the breeze, claiming, “Dokodo is our territory. We must keep it under our close guard”. Perhaps, in a rare display of his command over the disputed area, the visiting South Korean leader posed for a photograph before a rock painted with the slogan “ROK (South Korean) territory.”

In fact, South Korea is preparing to build a naval base on its Uileung island just 87 km. away from these disputed group of small islands with a view to ensure quick deployment of its own warships as compared to that of Japan in the event of an eruption of any dispute between them. As being reported that once the naval base is ready, the South Korean navy vessels could reach the disputed islands about 75 minutes faster than that of Japanese ships. Also, the presidential election in South Korea is due in coming December but, though, President Lee is constitutionally barred for a second term, his nationalist agenda will inevitably be carried ahead by the coming leadership because the horrible and bitter memories of the Japan’s brutal colonial rule over them is still fresh among many older Koreans.

Against this backdrop, Japan’s strong protest cancelling its diplomatic relations with South Korea is not a good omen for their cordial relations continuing so far besides encouraging North Korea- already a potential threat like Iran because of its secret nuclear weapons programme- to settle its scores with South Korea in the resulting melee due to its any confrontation with Japan. Further, the US would also find it very difficult because, on the one hand it has to deal with likely nuclear North Korea and to make a fine balance between both of his close friends with a view to forge its new found good relations in the Asia-Pacific region including Australia and beyond, in the particular context of China’s rising imperialist assertions in the entire Asia-Pacific region and also in the world with a view to serve its (the US) geo-economic and strategic interests in the region. Since the 21st century is being declared as that of Asia, its progress and prosperity will eventually depend only on peaceful and cordial relations among its member nations.

Dr. Sudhanshu Tripathi is Associate Professor of Political Science in M.D.P.G. College, Pratapgarh (UP), India.

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