Time to Tell Irresponsible Allies No Thanks

Six decades have passed since World War II ended, but you wouldn’t know it from relations between South Korea and Japan. The two leading democratic, capitalist powers in East Asia – both close US allies – have been blustering over the status of 33 barren but contested blocks of rock. Cooperation over truly important issues, such as denuclearizing North Korea and channeling Chinese ambitions in a positive direction, has taken a back seat to immature political posturing. This irresponsible behavior is made possible by Washington’s continued defense of both nations.

Imperial Japan gained dominant influence in the peninsular kingdom in the late 1800s and formally annexed Korea as a colony in 1910. Tokyo’s policies were characteristically brutal: Korean culture was suppressed, Korean names were outlawed, and Korean labor was conscripted. During World War II the Japanese took Koreans as "comfort women" for Japanese soldiers on break from conquering East Asia and the Pacific.

It’s no wonder that anti-Japanese feeling, strong throughout most of the region, was especially intense in Korea. Indeed, it was one of the few unifying features of a peninsula divided by the US and Soviet Union in 1945.

These feelings were understandable, but the statute of limitations has run out. Japan’s wartime leaders all died long ago. Even most of the "grunts" are dead. The militaristic imperial order, devastated by Tokyo’s defeat, died along with them.

The US disarmed Japan and imposed a "peace constitution," which technically outlaws any military. Tokyo’s neighbors applauded, but American policymakers soon reconsidered. After the Chinese Revolution, Washington faced two large communist rivals in East Asia. In contrast, America’s allies were marginal: Australia and New Zealand small and distant, the Republic of Korea an economic and political wreck, the Philippines a third world state. Japan was America’s only potential powerful friend in Asia during the Cold War’s early years.

Anti-Japanese taunts became a useful political tactic for political elites in the ROK and elsewhere, such as Singapore. Secure beneath America’s protective umbrella, these countries demanded that Tokyo eschew even the ability to defend itself. Japan didn’t help matters, with assorted politicians periodically sounding off on the alleged benefits of colonialism in Korea and visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, at which more than a thousand convicted war criminals are interred.

Relations between South Korea and Japan have improved in recent years. Dissident Kim Dae-jung took refuge in Japan decades ago; he encouraged more positive bilateral ties after he was elected ROK president in 1997. Moreover, the horrifying brutality and criminality of the North Korean government eroded the support, financial as well as political, of Pyongyang by many ethnic Koreans living in Japan, most of whom had come from the North. Kim’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun, attempted to use anti-Japanese feeling to bolster his fading popularity, but President Lee Myun-bak, elected last December, advocated improving relations.

Alas, the controversy over the Takeshima (Japanese name)/Dokdo (Korean name) Islands (or Liancourt Rocks in the West) has pushed relations backwards. (The surrounding waters are commonly known as the Sea of Japan, except in Korea, which calls them the East Sea. Just two Koreans, an octopus fisherman and his wife, live permanently on the assorted outcroppings – 56 acres in all – but every day hundreds of South Koreans visit. The voyage takes several hours and the unpredictable waves often prevent anyone from landing. Even when the sea cooperates, the visitors typically stay only 20 minutes. Nevertheless, 80,000 South Koreans have made the trek so far this year, a testament to the frivolous petulance which sometimes captures the popular psyche of the Republic of Korea.

The competing claims are tied up with Tokyo’s military victory over Russia and – the cause of the issue’s emotional sensitivity in Korea – Japan’s subsequent takeover of the Korean peninsula. America occupied both the ROK and Japan at the end of World War II, but left the issue unresolved. South Korea installed a small police garrison in the 1950s to stake its claim and rejected Tokyo’s offer to bring the issue to the International Court of Justice. The two countries set the issue aside when they normalized relations in 1965, but controversy flared in 2005 when the government of Shimane prefecture in Japan declared Takeshima Day, celebrating Tokyo’s claim.

In July the Japanese Ministry of Education issued a new manual for teachers and textbook publishers asserting Tokyo’s rightful ownership. Seoul called it "an intolerable act," temporarily recalled its ambassador from Japan, canceled a scheduled meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers, and sent Prime Minister Han Seung-soo to the islands. South Korean citizens demonstrated. The South even conducted military exercises nearby – to prepare for any Japanese provocation, noted Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee. North Korea, which has largely ignored the issue (the islands are much closer to the South), added its angry voice.

The US was drawn into the controversy. The US Board on Geographic Names changed its listing of the islands from South Korean to "undesignated sovereignty." The ROK predictably protested and, faced with the threat of popular protests during President George W. Bush’s planned visit to Seoul in early August, the White House ordered the Board to reverse itself. (A similar controversy enveloped the Library of Congress, which planned on listing the islets as Liancourt Rocks, before backing down under pressure.)

In August Seoul arranged an international press delegation to Dokdo/Takeshima to build public support. South Korea says it may construct a marine science research station and village on the rocks next year. Hong Joon-pyo, an official in the ruling Grand National Party, sought to rally the ROK against "the Japanese ambition for territorial aggression." Twenty-four-year-old Kim Eun-taek, a police conscript stationed on the islands, spoke for many of his countrymen when he told the New York Times: "I feel immensely proud. Not every South Korean gets a chance to guard the easternmost territory of our nation. Besides, I never liked the Japanese."

It seems inconceivable that either nation would ever use military force to advance its claim, but both send naval patrols into the surrounding waters. Still, the more practical consequence of the controversy is to poison relations between the two countries. During abortive negotiations between the two states, one official observed: "We would be better off if we just blow up the islands." He was right.

The advantages of cooperation between Japan and South Korea are obvious. Economic ties are strong and the two are important trading partners. There is perhaps even greater cause to work together to promote their mutual security. North Korea remains an unpredictable and hostile force, especially with the status of dictator "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il in question. China’s influence is growing, and while Beijing has been assertive rather than aggressive so far, both South Korea and Japan would be more secure if they acted in tandem on geopolitical issues.

However, neither feels much pressure to do so as long as Washington provides both security guarantees and military garrisons. Indeed, Seoul cheerfully subsidizes North Korea, as it constructs a nuclear arsenal, while lobbying America to maintain its troop presence – and treating Japan as a potential threat.

The US should say no more. With the end of the Cold War the case for continued American military domination of East Asia disappeared. That policy no longer serves US security interests, since its allies are well able to defend themselves, and to cooperate with each other in doing so. Moreover, attempting to maintain Washington’s military hegemony along China’s border is unsustainable, as Beijing grows wealthier and more influential.

Escaping disputes like the South Korean-Japanese quarrel over who owns 33 worthless bits of rock a world away from America would be an added benefit of disengagement. It’s time for Tokyo and especially Seoul to behave like serious members of the international community rather than spoiled teenagers, and provide responsible leadership in East Asia.