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Commentary (March 30, 2005)

Diplomatic War with Japan: A Dangerous Distraction for Seoul

Donald Kirk (Scholar and Commentator on Korean Affairs)

People are starving and dying in North Korea, and Pyongyang is threatening the world with nuclear weapons. But what is getting South Korea worked up these days? The answer: an outcrop of rocky islets known to Koreans as Tokto and to the Japanese as Takeshima.

Symbolically, the islets remind Koreans of the humiliation under 35 years of Japanese rule, and they raise a terrifying spectre. Could it happen again? Could a militarily resurgent Japan, under some right-wing leader, see the Korean Peninsula as both a threat and a stepping stone to the domination of Asia?

For Koreans, those memories burn in the subconscious while North Korea - whose troops invaded the South in 1950 at the outset of by far the bloodiest war ever fought on Korean soil - remains a distant apparition. No one I talked to in South Korea seems to believe the North's troops are about to invade again. No one imagines that it is remotely likely to explode a nuclear bomb. In fact, since Pyongyang has yet to conduct a live nuclear test, it is far from certain whether it possesses the technology to fire a nuclear-tipped missile - or even drop one from a plane.

Today, however, the fact is that Japan is not much of a threat, either. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, when he declared a "diplomatic war" with Japan for numerous offences (both real and imagined), neglected to point out that the Japanese are not, for one minute, contemplating a "pre-emptive strike" on the Tokto islets, which are occupied by a South Korean police garrison.

In fact, Tokto is such a peaceful place that boatloads of South Korean tourists visit regularly just to see one of the world's more obscure flashpoints.

So, was Mr Roh's outburst just a diversionary tactic - an effort to show himself as a tough-talking leader while deflecting attention from the infinitely more sensitive and complicated issue of North Korea? Was this the reason that Mr Roh spent most of his time with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during her recent tour of Asia, lecturing her about Tokto and Japan?

The impression in Seoul is that the US and Japan are working together to intimidate both North and South Koreans. Under these circumstances, Seoul and Pyongyang have turned to Beijing - the North has no other friend, and the South increasingly sees China as a balancing force against the weight of the US and Japan.

The South Korean gambit is a dangerous one. There is no chance of war with Japan. The North's troops - and any nuclear weapons - remain a threat to Seoul. Pyongyang may not be about to declare a second Korean war while it is increasingly isolated, but a Korean crisis looms if the North fails to talk.

The Tokto commotion may be a reminder of historic oppression by a foreign power, but it is a distraction from the more serious business that is much closer to South Korea's self-interest and survival.

(Originally appeared in the March 29, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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