By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
China and North Korea may be rubbing their hands in glee over the rapid deterioration in relations between Japan and South Korea, the top two U.S. military allies in Asia.
Ties between the two neighboring economic powers and vibrant democracies plummeted to levels unseen in recent years when South Korean President Lee Myung Bak last week visited disputed islands in the Japan Sea—or the East Sea according to Koreans—touching off a diplomatic storm with Japan.
Lee’s trip to the rocky islets, known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, is the first by a South Korean president and came about a month after Seoul at the last minute put off the inking of an agreement with Tokyo to share military intelligence on China and North Korea.
A fuming Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called the visit to the islands “unacceptable,” recalled Tokyo’s ambassador in Seoul, and is likely to postpone an upcoming summit with Lee and refer the territorial dispute again to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice.
A meeting between finance ministers of the two economies set for next week has also been postponed following Lee’s helicopter visit to the islands, which he said was aimed at pressing Japan to settle grievances left over from its harsh 35-year colonial rule, such as women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during World War II.
The tensions have also spilled over to the sports arena. A South Korean soccer player raised a placard saying “Dokdo is our territory” at the just-concluded Olympic games in London after his country beat Japan 2-0 for the bronze medal. He was banned from the medal awarding ceremony for breaking a rule against politicizing the Games.
Some analysts say the plummeting ties between Asia’s second and fourth-biggest economies may bring some comfort to North Korea and China.
Seoul and Tokyo have been concerned, like the U.S., about Beijing’s military might growing on the back of its economic successes and Pyongyang’s illicit nuclear weapons program and missile development plans.
“I think privately China would be happy to see strains in the relationship,” Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, told RFA.
“It certainly impedes U.S. ability to forge a common security partnership—trilateral partnership—to deal not only with North Korea, but also with the growing Chinese threat.”
Japan and South Korea have been particularly closely monitoring Chinese ally North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and effectively will determine whether or not the reclusive nation should be allowed to return to negotiations for any international aid-for-disarmament schemes.
The flare-up of tensions between Seoul and Tokyo has national security repercussions for both countries and impedes U.S. security objectives in Asia, Klingner said.
For example, South Korea’s abrupt shelving of the bilateral military intelligence agreement with Japan will prevent the two countries from exchanging information on North Korean and Chinese military developments, he said.
The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) would have been the first military pact between Seoul and Tokyo since the end of Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula in 1945.
“It would have provided a legal framework allowing for the exchange and protection of classified information about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, potential military incursions and terrorist or cyber attacks, and China’s increasing military power,” said Klingner, a former chief of the CIA’s Korea branch.
The United States, which stations more than 75,000 troops in Japan and South Korea, is watching developments between the two ally nations closely but is not taking sides.
“With regard to the Japan-Korea disputes, we do not take a position between our two allies. We encourage our allies to work this out together,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday.
Some experts played down the prospect of the United States being adversely affected by the dispute.
“It is complicating, I’m sure our officials don’t like to see it happen and it may make it more difficult for us to pursue our agenda, but I don’t think it is a huge impediment,” Richard Bush, a former senior State Department official, told RFA.
“I think that in an optimal situation, South Korea and Japan would try to minimize their disagreement so that they along with others could present a common front against North Korea,” said Bush, now a North Asia expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
But he pointed out that whatever happens on the territorial issue, “there is quite a bit of consensus” among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea on how to handle the North Korean situation.
Bilateral tensions, some say, are fueled by domestic politics.
The military pact was put off at the last minute because both South Korea’s ruling party and opposition parties were concerned about public opposition amidst a flurry of anti-Japanese sentiment in the country.
Lee, who is nearing the end of his single, five-year term and cannot run for re-election, is reeling from flagging support ahead of presidential polls in December to pick a successor.
He may have wanted to cash in on anti-Japanese sentiment with his high-profile visit to the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, controlled by South Korea but claimed by Tokyo, some commentators said.
With his popularity also shrinking, Noda is also under domestic pressure to take a tough stance, they said. The Japanese premier may have to call elections his party could lose within the year.
“That is not inconsequential,” Bush said. “It will be interesting to go back and check to see if there is a pattern here.”
The current situation could become more complicated as Japan is also involved in a widening row with China and Russia over disputed islands.
Last month, temperatures rose when Chinese patrol vessels entered waters near the Tokyo-controlled islands known as Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China, and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, setting off a confrontation with the Japanese coast guard.
The Chinese action came after Noda said his government was considering purchasing the islands, now privately owned.
Moscow is also seen to be stoking tensions.
The Russian Navy said it would send two vessels to the disputed Russian-controlled islands known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan to honor Soviet soldiers who died there at the end of World War II, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
Tokyo has protested Russia’s travel to the islands in the past. Dmitry Medvedev made the first visit to the islands by a Russian president in 2010 and went there again on July 3, this time as prime minister, triggering protests which Moscow ignored.
If relations between Tokyo and Seoul continue to sour, there is a possibility of South Korea moving closer to China, raising U.S. concerns, experts said.
Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski warned recently that if American power were to decline, South Korea might face a “painful choice” of either accepting Chinese regional hegemony or strengthening cooperation with Japan.
“Strained relations with both of them, which might give North Korea more room for maneuver, would be the worst scenario for South Korea,” the Korea Herald newspaper in South Korea said in an editorial Tuesday. “It is somewhat worrisome that Seoul now appears to be heading in that direction.”
But there is still optimism that Japan and South Korea can mend their ways, provided the politicians behave.
Grassroots exchanges between the two countries are at historical highs, noted Japan’s Asahi Shimbun daily. Concerts by South Korean pop stars in Tokyo attract tens of thousands of Japanese fans, it said.
In popular shopping districts in Seoul, store clerks greet Japanese tourists with words of welcome in Japanese.
“Politicians of both countries should not be allowed to take any action to reverse this trend.”