Lee Myung Bak’s stunt over disputed islands

Author: Kee-seok Kim, Kangwon National University and ANU

Tensions between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands have been rising since Korean President Lee Myung Bak paid an unexpected visit to the islands on 10 August — the first time a Korean president ever visited the disputed islet. The islands were also an issue at the 2012 London Olympics, where ROK soccer player Park Jong-woo was threatened with withdrawal of a bronze medal after he displayed a banner reading ‘Dokdo is our land’ following a match with Japan.

So why did Lee decide to visit the Dokdo/Takeshima islands?

One view is that Lee wants to make a symbolic stand. Korean people tend to regard the long-lasting territorial dispute as a by-product of Japanese colonial rule. The visit may be a sign that Lee is abandoning Korea’s long-held policy of avoiding diplomatic disputes over Dokdo — the so-called silent diplomacy approach. In this view, Lee’s decision fits the pattern of relations between Korea and Japan since the former was democratised. Like other presidents, when Lee was new to the presidency, he was friendly and forward looking toward Japan, but towards the end of the presidency he has become less diplomatic in the conduct of the relationship.

If the visit was a symbolic stand, Lee is sacrificing a great deal. This upgrade of counter measures to Japan’s increasingly resolute claims to the islets will fray bilateral ties at a time when Seoul is pursuing deeper strategic relations with Tokyo. The visit also undermines the US strategy of setting up a strong security network in the region to cope with a rising China. Finally, tensions in the South China Sea make Dokdo look very much like a ‘disputed area’ — a legal classification the Korean government has strenuously sought to avoid.

The actual diplomatic cost of the Dokdo visit would appear to outweigh the largely symbolic benefit of demonstrating that Korea is willing to press its legitimate claims on the islet. So it is not surprising that analysts should be sceptical about the strategic merit of the visit.

A more persuasive view is that Lee is motivated by domestic politics. Lee is a lame duck with a low support rate, caught fast in corruption scandals involving his brother and close aides. He wants to use the territorial issue to bolster his approval rate, even if it means that diplomatic relations with Japan suffer a setback.

Lee timed his visit so it was the culmination of two weeks of patriotism, after Korean athletes did remarkably well at the London Olympic Games. Lee visited the disputed islands one day ahead of the bronze-winning soccer game with Japan and five days before Liberation Day, which celebrates Korea’s emancipation from Japanese colonial rule. The timing was calculated to maximise the popularity of the event, and it seems to have worked. A government poll shows the approval rate of the visit exceeds 80 per cent among Korean people.

If Lee did visit the Dokdo islands for domestic political benefit, expect exchanges of aggressive rhetoric, diplomatic bluffing, possibly some action from the Japanese side and a straining of bilateral ties. Japan’s political leaders have already reacted with high rhetoric. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda recalled Japan’s ambassador to Korea, and said Lee’s visit was completely unacceptable. Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said that the Japanese government was considering ‘filing a suit with the International Court of Justice’ while major rightist Japanese media urged the government to take further measures in response to Lee’s visit.

The Korean government’s strategy, by contrast, is to minimise the aftershocks once the political gains of the event have been reaped. A Korean official has said that ‘nothing will be changed because it was just a domestic political event’. A Blue House official told a Korean newspaper that the visit was the president’s own decision and that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not taken part in organising it. The Korean government does not seem to be bracing itself to deal with further major developments. In his Liberation Day address, president Lee himself avoided mentioning the Dokdo issue focusing only on the ‘comfort women’ issue.

In Korea, the main criticism of Lee’s visit is that it gives Tokyo a free hand to respond. Yet without resorting to military confrontation — which is highly unlikely — Japan has few effective cards to play. The visit also means that the next Korean government will face great pressure to restore relations with Japan. At least it is clear that no major actor in either country thinks relations between the two neighbours will remain bad. Both countries have leadership changes scheduled for later this year. Things might get worse before then, but the damage will only be temporary.

Kee-seok Kim is Professor of Comparative Politics and Japanese political economy at the Department of Political Science, Kangwon National University, and Visiting Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.