The Olympic Games still represent an opportunity for international politics for many countries; while in Europe, the tendency is to withdraw candidacies to become their headquarters, in the Indo-Pacific, they represent an important vector of foreign policy and a platform through which to reaffirm territorial claims. An example is a centuries-old dispute between South Korea and Japan over the Liancourt Rocks. This article is part of a series dedicated to the last year of South Korean President Moon Jae -in’s administration. In the text, reference will be made to the relations between the countries mentioned above.
The lengthy diatribe on the Liancourt Rocks
Diametrically opposite to the island of Jeju, compared to the Strait of Korea, the Liancourt Rocks, called Dokdo by the Koreans, Takeshima by the Japanese, represent for the two Asian states what the Senkaku represent for China and Japan: a battleground. The Japanese Diplomatic Blue Book of 2021, the first issued during Yoshihide Suga’s rule, renews the claims of the Rising Sun on the islands, currently considered as Korean territory. In 2018, the blue book issued during Shinzo Abe’s presidency stated that the islands were “illegally occupied” by the Koreans.
Parallel to the writing in diplomatic documents, the Liancourt Rocks became a source of resentment even during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang 2018, when the two Koreas initially marched together, showing the Korean Unification Flag included within the peninsula depicted in the banner, Dokdo islands. Following the protests in Tokyo and pressure from the International Olympic Committee, the Rocks were removed from the Unification Flag, depicting a united Korea in blue on a white background.
The latter returned to the spotlight in 2019, when the website of the Japanese Olympic Committee showed them as being part of their territory. Since the situation appears unchanged, in South Korea, there have been chants of protest against Japan, chants that are increasingly resulting in requests from the population for a boycott of the Olympics by the Korean state. A poll published on Monday, June 28 2021, shows how 60% of the population is against the participation of the South Korean premier in the Olympics. Following some inappropriate statements by Hirohisa Soma, deputy head of mission at the Japanese embassy in Seoul, regarding President Moon Jae -in, the South Korean premier declared on July 19, 2021, through a spokesman, that he would not have made any visits to Japan during the Olympic Games.
Relations between South Korea and Japan have been periodically marked by tensions and difficulties, mainly linked to the Korean peninsula’s colonial experience for over 30 years, from 1910 to the end of the Second World War. The normalization of relations between Tokyo and Seoul, which took place only in 1965 during the military regime of Park Chung-hee, met with robust and widespread opposition. Even after the normalization of relations, relations between the two countries continued to be characterized by ups and downs.
However, after the Cold War, there have been several improvements. The various attempts at reconciliation have not reduced the numerous criticisms of the Japanese government, accused of having adopted an official posture that is not genuine and, furthermore, revisionist, regarding taking responsibility for the war crimes committed by Imperial Japan.
The complex bilateral relations and the Park family
In Korea, the period of General Park’s rule is not only synonymous with authoritarian repression. It is also known as the ” miracle of the Han River ” period. Economic policies, some in favour of the chaebol, family-owned industrial conglomerates, and substantial public investment have enabled the Republic of Korea to surpass the then-level of prosperity in the Democratic Republic, its northern counterpart.
It will be precisely based on these economic successes that the daughter of the general, Park Geun-hye, will manage to win the parliamentary elections of 2013. The first woman to hold both the role of leader of the Conservative party and President of the South Korean Republic, was greeted with favour from the various groups of Korean conservatives and from the main actors interested in stemming China and North Korea in the region. In contrast to the ” Sunshine policy ” adopted by its predecessors, the hard-line towards Pyeongyang and the political proximity to Tokyo – in 2016, the last trilateral summit was held with Washington and Shinzo Abe and Barack Obama – will be the significant points of contrast with the successor Moon.
One significant event, in particular, occurred in 2015 when President Park’s government reached an agreement with the Abe Administration on the issue of comfort women. According to statements by both governments, the deal ultimately and irreversibly resolved the problem of reparations to Korean victims through compensation of approximately 9 million US dollars, made available by Tokyo through a fund administered by the Korean government.
The agreement also provided for an official apology and the acknowledgement of the responsibility of Imperial Japan by Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida and Prime Minister Abe. Despite this, the deal was subject to intense criticism. Little appreciated was the fact that the established fund was described in the agreement as a form of monetary “support” to the victims and not as a form of direct compensation from the Japanese government. In any case, the agreement guaranteed a temporary improvement in relations between Tokyo and Seoul.
However, a scandal linked to the influences that the Choi family, leader of a religious sect, exercised on the President led to the latter’s fall, the arrest of several public officials and corporate executives, including leading figures of various chaebol, and the subsequent rise of Democratic leader Moon Jae-in.
The victory of Moon Jae-in and the escalation of tensions
With Moon’s victory in 2017, relations between the two countries have again degenerated, and tensions over historical issues have escalated. In the eyes of the Japanese government, Moon is guilty of having politicized relations between Seoul and Tokyo to divert the attention of the Korean electoral base from purely domestic issues. In particular, former Prime Minister Abe strongly rejected South Korea’s criticism of the 2015 agreement. The deal was described by Moon as a purely political one, far from doing justice to the victims of Japanese crimes and, therefore, in 2018, his administration proceeded to terminate the fund established with it.
Initially, Abe opposed this unilateral measure and proposed new consultations. However, following the Korean government’s lack of interest in this proposal, the dialogue between the two countries froze. Abe’s decision to introduce restrictions on high-tech exports destined for Korea and Moon’s threat not to continue the GSOMIA intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo also complicated the situation. With the change of government in Japan in September 2020, the possibility of rapprochement opened up again. However, this perspective was immediately blurred: The new Prime Minister Suga continued his predecessor’s foreign policy approach, including rigid policies towards South Korea. Not surprisingly, Suga did not mention relations with Seoul at all in his first speech as prime minister.