The actions of the Lee government are perplexing (if not a bit aggravating) in that they come from a government that initiated dialogue with the then LDP government in 2008 aimed at improving diplomatic relations with Japan, which reversed the “sunshine policy” of the government of Roh Moo-Hyun in favour of a more confrontational approach towards North Korea under Kim Jong-Il, and which sought to overturn a “pro-China” stance of the former government in favour of stronger strategic relations with the US and Japan (J). Lee’s actions last week have left South Korea in a conundrum, for at a time when China and North Korea see no need to acquiesce to South Korea’s regional concerns, calling off a defence agreement with Japan (E) and then engaging in provocative acts such as landing on the Liancourt Rocks and issuing demands of the Emperor are not in South Korea’s interests, and may reinforce a perception of the South Korean government beholden to domestic interests that occasionally manifest in diplomatic negotiations in unpredictable ways (re; the recent controversy surrounding South Korea’s intention to undertake scientific whaling, and the dichotomy between the position of the South Korean Ministry of Agriculture versus that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (E).
Issues of historical responsibility are almost impossible to resolve amicably, for such is the degree of personal and group related trauma that discussions inevitably become bogged down in the minutiae of who did what to whom and when, and whether one side is “sincere” in its apology. To then use historical responsibility to advocate issues related to territorial sovereignty guarantees that neither side will countenance the views of the other, for by their very nature they are emotion-laden and divorced from purely legal reasoning. The reluctance of the South Korean government to seek a resolution with Japan in relation to the Liancourt Rocks in the International Court of Justice (the proposal for which Japan submitted to the court last week (E) is implicitly linked to this sense of grievance. When South Korea occupied the Rocks in 1952, it did so without international arbitration (given that South Korea was not privy to the San Francisco Treaty of 1951, and so did not have an opportunity to press its claim for sovereignty as it was engaged at the time in a war against North Korea, its actions in occupying the Rocks before they were to return to Japanese sovereignty must be seen in this context).
Since Japan was to re-establish sovereignty over the Rocks, South Korea’s occupation amounted to a violation of international law (this was certainly the US view), yet Japan did not press the issue and sought arbitration, which South Korea refused to answer (repeatedly, as noted here). Agreeing to international arbitration would subject the South Korean claim to legal scrutiny, which may find that South Korea had acted illegally thus nullifying its claim to the Rocks (although it is not an a priori case considering the circumstances in which the Rocks were returned to Japanese sovereignty). To occupy the Rocks and then tie this to questions of reparations puts the issue outside of territorial concerns in favour of emotionally based nationalism.
It may be that South Korea has resolved to force Japan’s hand on the issue of war responsibility and territoriality, betting that whatever the temporary effects on the South Korean-Japan relationship, Japan needs South Korea far more than South Korea needs Japan. South Koreans exports are rising (E), its products are out-selling those of Japan in the same markets (J), it has engaged in FTA negotiations (not withstanding a strong domestic backlash) with regional partners (E), and has sought broader defence relations with other states in the region (E). While South Korea may in time overtake Japan in terms of GDP growth rates, like Japan South Korea’s population is aging (J), the government does not encourage immigration, and it still has to deal with the immediate threat of war with its neighbour to the north. To bring its giant neighbour across the East China Sea to the negotiating table on North Korean issues, not to mention negotiating with China itself on issues related to EEZs (E), South Korea needs both Japan and the US for leverage, and neither of these states have been particularly impressed with South Korea's upsetting attempts to form a solid security tripartite by insisting that historical issues be settled first (J).
So what can be done? For the interim, neither side will want to be seen to give in to the demands of the other, hence a stand-off will continue for some months. In the meantime, given the fact that tripartite FTA talks between South Korea, Japan and China continued this week in spite of political anger over the territorial issue (J), bureaucrats in Seoul and Tokyo will co-operate behind the scenes on core interests to both countries while avoiding any overt statements related to sovereignty, leaving that to the politicians. Once South Korea conducts its presidential election and the result is made public, bilateral relations will probably raised by both governments keen to re-start initiatives stalled by the current dispute. For both countries, there is too much at stake for relations to freeze over issues of sovereignty, a point that is implicitly understood by the protaganists of both sides. Meanwhile the US will not allow its two most important allies in Northeast Asia to jeopardise the nascent defence pact being forged in the region, and so phone calls from Washington will hopefully have the desired effect in smothering the dispute before it threatens to escalate any further*.
*As of Friday, reports in the Yomiuri Shimbun were stating that Japan was contemplating a freeze on purchasing South Korean government bonds out of concerns that this may look hypocritical given the current climate. However this is not expected to have an impact on the progress of the three-way talks (J).