NHK live broadcasts on the tsunami that swept coastal villages in Eastern Japan on March 11 were a shocking scene to the Korean people. Japan now confronts the aftermath of triple natural disasters—an earthquake of a record 9.0 magnitude, a devastating tsunami and the threat of radioactive contamination—that have left tens of thousands dead and missing, and hundreds of thousands still struggling to survive at crowded shelters.
Following the daily progress of crisis, Koreans moved quickly to help the Japanese. The Korean government’s decision to dispatch a rescue team within days of the earthquake was the earliest action taken by any foreign government. Korea sent 53 tons of boric acid to help control the badly broken Fukushima nuclear plants, and on March 19, delivered 100 tons of water and 6,000 blankets for the Japanese people in shelters.
The government was not the only helping hand. On March 12, the Chosun Daily initiated a movement for donations from Korean citizens, which drew more than 10,000 participants in a single day and led actions from other media and public organizations. The Korean Red Cross amassed over $19 million in 2 weeks—the largest amount of voluntary donation at times of natural disasters both in and outside Korea. Myeongdong, the most well-known tourist spot for Japanese, displayed a banner saying, ‘Cheer up, Japanese friends. We are always with you,’ while the Korean Salvation Army appealed for charitable donations from passersby. Even the Korean comfort women, victims of Japanese colonialism who’ve demonstrated at the Japanese embassy every Wednesday for the past 19 years, observed a time for mourning and donated money for Japan on March 16. In 3 weeks, South Korean donations reportedly amounted to a total of $46 million.
In an opinion survey conducted by YTN, JoongAng Daily, and the East Asia Institute in March, 76.4 percent of respondents supported the idea of collecting money for, and dispatching rescuers to, Japan. For Korea, where ordinary people have mixed feelings toward Japan because of historical and territorial controversies, this was a rare manifestation of friendly and embracing attitudes toward Japan. The vast majority of Koreans has shown deep sympathy toward the disaster-stricken Japanese people, starting from elementary school students who’ve joined the voluntary donation effort. A high-ranking Korean diplomat in Japanese affairs suggested that this unprecedented and virtually unanimous positive shift in attitudes toward Japan could be a new milestone for upgrading Korea-Japan relations. Another Japan specialist called the response a paradigmatic shift in the Korean mindset. Japan’s March 11 earthquake and Korea’s subsequent civic initiative to help Japan could present a potential turning point for breaking the vicious cycle of repeated controversies.
But South Korea’s heightened mood of friendship toward Japan and Japan’s own hardship didn’t discourage Japan’s Ministry of Education from promoting territorial awareness on Dokdo/Takeshima through its March 30 middle school textbook review, the result of which follows new teaching guidelines established in 2008. Reflecting a conservative shift in Japanese society, all 18 geography, civics, and history textbooks present the island as Japanese territory, with 4 arguing that Korea is illegally occupying Japan’s territory, and the proportion of textbooks containing Japan’s territorial claim increasing from 43 to 66 percent. The Japanese government’s handling of the issues galvanized the Korean public, for whom Dokdo/Takeshima is not a mere subject of territorial controversy, but also symbolizes the legacy of Japanese colonial rule as the first ‘territorial’ concession to Japan in 1905.
Most Koreans find it deplorable that Japan couldn’t avoid another territorial flare-up amid the South Korean government and public’s unprecedented friendly outreach toward Japan, an otherwise historic moment for the heightening of bilateral ties which can hardly be engineered by diplomatic efforts. Koreans received Japan’s posture with understandable frustration. In a DongA Ilbo survey on March 31, only 17.3 percent of respondents believed that Korean assistance for the Japanese earthquake would substantially contribute to upgrading the bilateral relationship; 43.3 percent saw Korean support of Japan as a temporary phenomenon; and 34.9 percent anticipated no major breakthrough in relations led by Korean initiative.
Although the Korean government has decided to separate the issue of humanitarian aid from the territorial controversy and abstain from raising political tensions, the confrontation highlighted the territorial issue as a continued constraint to cooperation with Japan. But, it’s unlikely that Korea will link territorial controversies with other cooperative agendas. The United States, Japan and South Korea are stepping up trilateral coordination, especially after the North Korean artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November.
This tremendous natural disaster reminded both Korea and Japan of the critical need to work together on nuclear safety in addition to ongoing efforts toward North Korean denuclearization and nonproliferation. When foreign ministers of South Korea, Japan and China met on March 19, 2011, they recognized the need to strengthen cooperation in the areas of disaster management and nuclear safety. Putting nuclear safety on the agenda of the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul will present an important opportunity to enhance alliance cooperation among Korea, Japan and the United States. Furthermore, the Great East Japan Earthquake elevated the need to undertake concerted efforts in dealing with other non-traditional security concerns in the region such as energy security, environmental challenges and food safety. Critically important to enhancing non-traditional security cooperation is the provision of public goods by maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, which can be effectively secured by trilateral cooperation among the United States, Japan and South Korea.
Cheol Hee Park is Associate Professor at Seoul National University.
(This is an edited version of an article published by the Center for US-Korea Policy and the Asia Foundation).