The Obama administration’s strategic pivot toward Asia could be adversely affected by a territorial quarrel between two key U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea, over a rocky outcrop of islands.
At the heart of the issue are two main islets and three-dozen smaller rocks in the East Sea/Sea of Japan. Both sides cite long-standing historical ties to the rocky outcrops, which are controlled by South Korea but claimed by Japan.
“If we have some cracks in the bilateral relationship between Japan and Korea, then it will affect the whole security situation in Asia,” Hong Sungmog, an ambassador in South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Washington Times on Tuesday.
“If the feelings of the [Korean] people get higher and higher, then the government may not be able to contain the emotion of the people.”
Meanwhile, another territorial disagreement, between Japan and China, has embroiled the region. Beijing and Tokyo claim sovereignty over a group of five East China Sea islands, known as Diaoyu in China and as Senkaku in Japan.
The Obama administration has adopted a rebalancing position toward the Asia-Pacific region and has spelled out military, economic and trade, human rights and diplomatic initiatives.
The islands have been a point of friction between Japan and South Korea since the end of Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula in 1945.
South Korea calls the islands Dokdo, or solitary islands. Japan calls them Takeshima, or bamboo islands. They are located in rich fishing waters, and it is believed that natural gas reserves may also be located in the area.
The Obama administration, which has declined to mediate in the matter, says the Asian nations must resolve the issue between themselves.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met jointly with her South Korean and Japanese counterparts at the U.N. session in New York on Friday. A senior State Department official told reporters after the meeting that Mrs. Clinton “urged dialogue” and called on both sides to “calm the waters [and] maintain cool heads.”
“She underscored that the U.S. has no intention to play a mediating role,” the official added.
Mr. Hong said it would be “nice” if the U.S. government played some role but conceded it would be hard for it to take sides.
South Korea denies there is any territorial dispute over the islands.
“We Koreans think that it is unfair that this should be an issue at all,” Mr. Hong said.
South Korea says on a government website dedicated to the issue that the Dokdo islands are an “integral part of Korean territory historically, geographically and under international law,”
A Japanese official in Washington, however, offered similar justification for Japan’s claim.
“From our perspective, Takeshima is an integral and inherent part of Japanese territory in light of historical evidence and in accordance with international law,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Neither South Korea nor Japan say there is any strategic interest in their wish to control the islets.
Tensions between South Korea and Japan escalated Aug. 10 when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented trip to the islands in the first visit by a South Korean leader.
Japan slammed that visit as illegal and claimed South Korea had “marred our mutual ties.”
Mr. Hong defended Mr. Lee’s decision to visit the islands.
“Korea’s president should be able to visit any part of his country,” he said.
Later in August, South Korea rejected a Japanese proposal to take the quarrel before the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
South Korean officials say there is nothing to discuss.
“We don’t accept that this is a legal dispute,” Mr. Hong said.