On August 24th, Japan, with the support of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations, began the release of treated radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. Upon release, the Japanese Prime Minister ate fish from Fukushima on August 30th to prove that the seafood in the region is safe to consume, according to the BBC. However, Japan’s release of water is increasing social and political tension in East Asia.
South Korea is severely divided between those who support Japan and those who do not. When the Democratic Party of Korea – the opposition party in South Korea – directly criticized the People’s Power Party (PPP) – the ruling party – for supporting the Japanese decision, the PPP denounced the Democrats for interfering with national affairs and committing “self-harm in diplomatic affairs,” according to YTN news in South Korea. Furthermore, as reported by Shaimaa Khalil, Tokyo Correspondent at the BBC, the public sentiment in South Korea differs from its government. The public is angry with Japan for polluting the Korean ocean and the South Korean government for not representing the public interest.
The event also worsened anti-Japanese sentiment in China. According to Jung Youngtae, Beijing correspondent at SBS news in South Korea, a shop owner in China disposed of 2,700 USD worth of Japanese products to protest the Japanese decision. According to Derek Cai, BBC correspondent in Singapore, a rock was recently thrown at a Japanese children’s school in Qingdao China, and another school in Shandong had several eggs hurled into its compound. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Japanese foreign ministry, according to Cai, even warned its citizens in China to be cautious and avoid speaking Japanese loudly in public, asking the Chinese government to ensure the safety of its citizens. The Japanese discharge of nuclear-treated water is therefore causing political, social, and diplomatic backlash in East Asia.
The Japanese government had to be aware of the possibility of backlash before it released the wastewater into the sea. According to Kelly Ng on BBC, Japan has been collecting and storing the contaminated water in tanks since 2011, when the Fukushima nuclear incident happened, but space is running out. Japan has accumulated approximately 1.34 million tonnes of water – enough to fill 500 Olympic-size pools – since 2011, when the tsunami destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant. Therefore, the Japanese government found the necessity to discharge the water to decrease the risk of the tanks bursting, with approval from many international organizations and scientists. The water has a small amount of tritium, a radioactive hydrogen element, which is believed to be safe. However, BBC environment correspondent Navin Singh Khadkha reported that some scientists are not as confident as popular opinion that the water is safe.
Because of the uncertainty about the safety of the water, it was hasty for Japan to release it. Khadkha at the BBC added that Professor Emily Hammond, an expert in energy and environmental law with George Washington University, said: “One can have a lot of faith in the IAEA’s work while still recognizing that compliance with standards does not mean that there are ‘zero’ environmental or human consequences attributed to the decision.” Therefore, inevitably, Japan’s actions risk the safety of its people, neighbouring nations, and the environment.
The hostility from Japan’s neighbouring nations therefore seems understandable because the water contains a radioactive element. However, the governments of China and South Korea are also contributing to the tension in their countries, as they are reacting without taking responsibility for their citizens. Although China is correct in allowing the Chinese public to demonstrate their reactions to this event, it does not seem to be controlling public discourse on hate directed towards the Japanese people. China seems to let its citizens take whatever action they want to take in this matter. On the other hand, the South Korean government does not represent the public discourse nor attempt to take further action that would eliminate the suspicion among its people. South Korean people are against the government, and the opposition party is taking advantage of this situation. China and Korea became socially and politically divided because of the Japanese release, but Japan is not the only actor to blame.
If South Korea, China, and Japan sincerely care about the wellness of their people in this issue, they should collaborate to figure out the best solution. China should not simply criticize and expect Japan to halt its actions because Japan is desperately worried about the leakage of the tanks, which will put Japan in danger. It is true that China and Hong Kong’s radical actions, such as banning fish imports from Japan, are necessary for the safety of its citizens. However, their actions also encourage the adverse feelings that Chinese people have towards Japanese people, and such sentiment is growing day by day. China is taking a unilateral stance that promotes anti-Japanese discourse.
On the other hand, South Korea should not simply sit and wait until its people calm down. If it cares about its people, it should take action to demonstrate so. It is also taking unilateral action by simply showing its unconditional support towards Japan’s decision. That makes its people believe that the interest of the South Korean government lies with Japan, not South Korea. Therefore, South Korea should also take further action to alleviate political and social tension within its country.
The three countries could collaborate to discuss the best solution regarding the matter. The current Japanese solution poses risks to East Asian people and the environment, and Japan needs a better solution. Furthermore, the Japanese government did not consider the opinion of its neighbouring countries – maybe except for South Korea – when it decided to begin the release of the wastewater, meaning a collaboration would make up for its mistake. As all three countries have plenty of intellectual resources and outstanding technologies, a technological partnership between the three nations could perhaps find a better solution than the discharge of the nuclear waters. In that way, the interests of the three countries will all be present in this issue. They could also take this as an opportunity to collaborate and reduce regional tension in East Asia.
However, setting collaboration as a solution is idealistic because East Asia is polarized more than ever with each nation’s political interests. South Korea, Japan, and the United States held military drills to confront North Korean aggression. North Korea is allied with Russia, which needs military support for the ongoing Ukraine War. North Korea and Russia are seeking a military alliance with China as well. Therefore, this ideal scenario is only possible if the three countries neglect their political self-interests and prioritize the well-being and safety of their people and the environment.
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