Russian Airplane Incident Triggers Longstanding Tensions Between South Korea And Japan

On Tuesday, July 23, a Russian military plane flew close to a group of islands claimed by both South Korea and Japan during a joint air patrol with the Chinese, inciting South Korea and Japan to scramble fighter jets in response. South Korea fired flares and warning shots near the aircraft, triggering diplomatic protests by China, Russia, and Japan.

A Russian military attaché stationed in Seoul stated that the aircraft “entered an unplanned area due to a device malfunction,” according to South Korea’s presidential press secretary Yoon Do-han. “The officer said such a situation would have never occurred if it followed the initially planned route. Russia has conveyed its deep regret over the incident and said its defence ministry would immediately launch an investigation and take all necessary steps,” Yoon said.

Japan has lodged a complaint against both Russia and South Korea. According to the BBC, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, “In light of Japan’s stance regarding sovereignty over Takeshima, the South Korean military aircraft’s having carried out warning shots is totally unacceptable and extremely regrettable.” 

At the heart of this conflict are a group of small islands located in the sea between South Korea and Japan. In Korean, they are known as Dokdo, meaning solitary islands, while Japan calls them Takeshima, meaning bamboo islands. Both countries claim ownership of the land, consisting of two main islands and around 30 smaller rocks. Another point of conflict arises from the naming of the waters: South Korea calls it the East Sea, while Japan calls it the Japan Sea. 

Both countries claim long-standing historical ties to the land, with differing narratives. South Korea says that in 1696, after a run-in between Korean and Japanese fishermen, the islands were declared Korean territory. In 1900, they were placed under the jurisdiction of Uldo county but were annexed by Japan five years later. After World War II, Dokdo was restored to Korea, the country claims. However, Japan’s Foreign Ministry claims that it claimed sovereignty over the islands by the mid-1600s, and they were incorporated into modern-day Shimane prefecture in 1905. Because they were not included in the San Francisco Peace Treaty as territory to be returned, Japan says that South Korea’s claims over Takeshima from 1952 are invalid.

This island dispute comes just days after the beginning of a worsening trade war between the two East Asian countries. Earlier this month, Japan placed controls on exports of fluorinated polyamides, photoresists, and hydrogen fluoride, three chemical materials used in the semiconductor industry in South Korea. Companies must now obtain individual licenses in a process taking around 90 days. Samsung and SK Hynix use these imported materials to produce nearly two thirds of the world’s memory chips, and Japanese restrictions threaten global supply. South Koreans are protesting against the restrictions by boycotting Japanese goods and rallying in the streets.

According to the Japan Times, South Korea tried to bring international pressure by presenting a complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO) General Council on Wednesday. However, other WTO members declined to take the floor, and many diplomats expressed their desire to not get involved in the dispute between the two nations. 

On Friday, July 26, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha urged the Japanese officials in a phone call to lift trade curbs. She also pressed against their impending decision to drop South Korea from Japan’s ‘white-list’, a list of countries that can trade with Japan with minimum restrictions. According to SK Kim, an analyst with brokerage firm Daiwa, continued restrictions will lead to “disruption in semiconductor production, which will have negative impact on global IT demand.” If South Korea is removed from Japan’s white-list, companies will need government licenses to sell products that could be re-purposed for weaponry or military use. “The impact will be widened to other industry areas, which will be negative for both [countries],” Kim added.

Yet Japan acknowledges the short-term consequences of its imminent decision. “We are aware that the sanctions against South Korea will deliver a short-term blow to both South Korea and Japan,” ruling party lawmaker Norihiro Nakayama said. “Nonetheless, it is a necessary step to ensure long-term security in Asia.”

The brewing conflict is a reflection of messy history between the two East Asian countries. Japan colonized the Korean peninsula in 1910, subjecting the inhabitants to discrimination and suffering. According to the Japan Times, after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937, the Japanese pushed assimilation, forcing Korean schoolchildren to pledge allegiance to the Japanese empire and forbidding the use of the Korean language. A major point of controversy arises from the issue of the “comfort women”, who were women and girls forced into sex slavery by the Japanese army before and during World War II. The violence of this historical past remains a wound for the Korean people, many of whom harbour a dislike for their neighbour to the east. 

The continuation of passive-aggressive name-calling and blaming by both countries exacerbates the issue. A core factor of the looming problem is the disagreement between historical narratives. South Korea and Japan seem unwilling to reconcile their pasts, mainly due to their stubbornness. The Japanese government has provided millions of dollars in compensation for the comfort women issue and has also set up institutions to help surviving victims, yet the government does not assume full responsibility for the sexual slavery, stating that private-sector brokers acted without government instruction. This refusal to admit involvement in the organization of the comfort women centres has angered the South Korean people, who demand a sincere apology. They are unwilling to forgive or let go without confession. An unintended consequence of this is that any conflict between Japan and South Korea, big or small, reopens the deep emotional wounds of this issue and escalates tensions quickly.

The bickering between South Korea and Japan further distracts from bigger problems at hand, such as the increasing power of China and Russia and the problem of North Korea. With Seoul-Tokyo relations souring, the United States also loses its grip in the region, as it has alliances with both countries. 

In order to take steps in resolving this issue, both South Korea and Japan must view individual conflicts separately. Political disputes over the islands should not bring in arguments regarding the comfort women; economic disputes, such as the trade war, should not harbour emotions from previous disagreements. This detachment of issues could make addressing the matter at hand much simpler. Even if Japan and South Korea do not agree on certain issues, they can still co-operate to resolve others and remind themselves of who the greater threats in the region are.

There should also be an effort toward productive dialogue. Korea’s deputy trade minister Kim Seung-ho said he was turned down after asking for a face-to-face meeting with Shingo Yamagami, Japan’s director-general of economic affairs at its Foreign Ministry, in Geneva. “That clearly shows that Japan has not the confidence or even the courage to face what Japan has done,” he said. However, Japanese ambassador Junichi Ihara claims that officials had already briefed South Korean representatives for five hours and that Japan was not refusing further talks. There is a discrepancy in narratives that needs to be sorted out before further talks commence harmoniously. If one party is avoiding confrontation, resolution is not possible.

Lastly, South Korea and Japan should take care in the language they use in conversation. The current language used by the two countries when referring to actions done by each other largely attempts to shift blame, which is not beneficial for conflict resolution. As Japan and South Korea have shame-based cultures emphasizing the honour of a person, the governments also seem to refuse to “lose face” and admit wrongdoing. Admitting faults of the past can heal wounds to move toward the future, which will ultimately allow for a better relationship between the two nations.