Tit for tat - Olympic and Diplomatic tension increases between Japan and Korea

The Olympic Rings mounted on Tower Bridge for the 2012 London Olympics. Image by: Dave Catchpole (CC)

 

Saying that the Olympics replace wars is not far from the truth.

In South Korea, achieving a medal – any medal – exempts male athletes from the two-year obligatory military service. Yesterday, all major South Korean dailies ran the news of Korea’s victory over Japan in Olympic football on the front page. Although this was Korea’s ninth Olympic football tournament, they have only reached quarter-finals twice before. Friday’s game earned them their first bronze in this discipline.

Whereas Korean media vociferously celebrated their victory over Japan yesterday, Japan’s dailies ran the story of their victory over Korea in women’s volleyball today, which also earned them a bronze medal. It has been 28 years since Japan’s female volleyball team won in this discipline.

Both countries were as ecstatic of these two bronze medals as they should have been for a gold. For outsiders, the sweetness of these victories cannot be understood merely in terms of golds, silvers and bronzes. Ms. Chung, a South Korean living in Europe commented “First time Korea wins a medal in football! The fact that the game was against Japan is just the cherry on top.” The extreme rivalry and historical animosity between the Far Eastern archipelago and peninsula shows its true face during these sporting events, which are literally a replacement for physical or military escalations.

Following the match, South Korean player Pak Jong-woo was admonished by the International Olympic Committee for carrying a flag and placard which read "Dokdo is Korean land!" He was barred from collecting his bronze medal because of this.

Today, following Japan's volleyball victory, Japanese Twitter user @sasanoha0831 wrote, “It’s odd that their extreme bliss after beating Japan would make them flaunt such a placard. If Korea’s behavior were justifiable, I believe that today, Japan should also flaunt a placard saying ‘Takeshima is Japanese land!’”

These two olympic bronzes come a day after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s unprecedented and controversial visit to the remote islets of contention known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korea, which are claimed by both countries.

Infuriated, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda condemned the move as being “extremely deplorable.” Tokyo immediately recalled its ambassador from Seoul in protest according to a report by Al-Jazeera and the Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, said “I told him (Korea’s ambassador to Japan) I have no understanding of why President Lee visited the islands at this time.”

The reasons for this move are not hard to fathom. South Korea currently stands 5th overall at the London Olympics, whereas Japan is currently biting the dust at position 13. Adding to this burst of self-confidence and pride, on August 15th, Korea will celebrate its 67th anniversary since Japan’s defeat in World War II to the Allied forces, which also marks the day the Korean peninsula regained its independence from 35 years of Japanese colonialism.

Another factor that complicates matters further is the mounting pressure for new elections to be held in Japan. On Friday, Yoshihiko Noda passed a bill which will increase consumption tax over the next three years from 5 to 10 percent, the Washington Post reports. The tax is meant to seep some of Japan's soaring national debt, one of the largest in the world, as well as help in the recovery of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. His political opponents are calling for fresh elections to be held to prove that his administration still has a public mandate. Inevitably, the way in which President Noda deals with the heated issue of South Korean President Lee's visit to Takeshima/Dokdo will be closely observed by Japan's right-wing parties and supporters.

Both Korea and Japan are extremely hot-headed when it comes to territorial and historical issues, to the point where even the Olympics may not be enough to stave off and replace more dramatic escalations between the two nations.

On August 3rd, the South Korean daily, Chosun Ilbo published an article confirming that the Korean military will conduct its bi-annual drills in the eastern waters near the Dokdo islets on August 13th, just two days from now. These drills involve the army, navy, air force and coast guard for protection in the Pacific theater. Understandably, this move has met vehement opposition in Japan.

Although pumped with youthful vigor, ultra-chauvinist emotions and a will to prove their worth, Koreans must remain level-headed both at the Olympics and in foreign relations with their neighbors. According to Jin Chang-Soo, of one of Korea’s biggest think-tanks, the Sejong Institute, Lee’s move was not very wise: “In the long term, considering there will be many problems (between the two countries), I doubt whether this is the right time to play this card,” he told AFP.

If we are to take the Olympics as a reflection of diplomatic and military might, both countries must bear in mind their strengths and weaknesses. Although Korea is ahead on the charts, it only has a total of 27 medals versus Japan’s 36. And as yesterday’s and today’s matches demonstrated, one victory can swiftly be silenced by a defeat. The Olympics end tomorrow, but diplomatic relations between the two countries do not: as Mr. Jin pointed out, the road is long and there will be many problems in the future to face.