Radioactive Ripples: Is Japan’s Water Release having a Ripple Effect on South Korea Ties?

In the realm of international diplomacy, few relationships have seen as many ebbs and flows as that of South Korea and Japan. Over the years, these two nations have navigated a complex history marked by moments of reconciliation, economic partnership, and cultural exchange. Yet, amidst the backdrop of progress, a cloud of concern has recently gathered, casting a shadow over their evolving ties. The decision by Japan to discharge radioactive materials into the Pacific Ocean has introduced a new layer of complexity, raising questions about environmental impact, regional stability, and the delicate balance of trust that underpins their diplomatic journey.

Tensions to Trends

South Korea-Japan relations have been strained by historical grievances stemming from Japan’s colonial rule over Korea (1910-1945) and the use of forced labor and “comfort women.” Economic tensions, long-standing mistrust and periodic diplomatic disputes have complicated their ties. However, the relationship has been experiencing progress under President Yoon Suk Yeol, marked by improved diplomatic relations and growing people-to-people connections, particularly among the youth.

The two countries share common security concerns posed by North Korea and China. President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida, both conservative leaders, are upset over the rise in Chinese military exercises close to Taiwan, as well as other hostile activities of North Korea and China. The US is also encouraging its two closest allies in Asia to enhance their mutual economic and security ties. As a result we are witnessing some positive trends. For instance, the restoration of once terminated intelligence pact, (as a protest over Japan’s restriction on South Korean exports) GSOMIA or General Security of Military Information Agreement. Japan has been reinstated, after being removed off the “white list” (preferred) of trading partners in 2019 under the government of former President Moon. Also Yoon’s response to criticisms over Kishida not making an apology for Japan’s participation in World War II by stating that Japan had previously expressed regrets and apologized for historical challenges several times. This positive trend signifies a departure from historical tensions that have often strained bilateral ties. President Yoon’s efforts to mend relations and foster greater understanding between the two countries have been commendable. 

Furthermore, initiatives spearheaded by youth have served to close gaps and improve communication between the two countries. Youth in South Korea have expressed interest in Japanese culture, language, and tourism. Many Koreans see these exchanges as a sign of bettering ties, especially as they show a younger generation that is eager for future collaborations.

Discharge and Dismay

Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, water has been continuously used to cool the reactors and prevent further meltdowns. This water becomes contaminated with radioactive isotopes, including tritium, over time. As a result, a significant amount of contaminated water has accumulated in storage tanks on the plant site. Unfortunately, the storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are reaching their storage capacity limit.The situation has deteriorated since the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO), has run out of storage capacity for the contaminated water. As a result, Japan has chosen to dump 1.3 million tons of treated radioactive water from the nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean in order to manage the massive volume of contaminated water. Other nations with nuclear reactors have used the practice of releasing treated water containing tritium into the ocean. Controlled discharges of such water into the ocean, according to international agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are an authorized practice within defined safety limitations.

In the recent waves of progress in South Korea-Japan ties, it seems this discharge threatens to overshadow the positive developments. The discharge triggers concerns about environmental contamination, health risks, and the transboundary impact of radioactive materials on South Korea’s coast. This issue become a focal point for those who are already skeptical of Japan’s intentions, amplifying concerns about transparency, accountability, and the potential long-term effects on South Korea’s ecosystem and seafood industry. The reaction of other neighbors can already be seen with China banning seafood from Japan and North Korea calling it ‘a crime against humanity’. But things are a little different in South Korea. Despite the widespread protest, the government has approved Japan’s disposal plan, requesting only that Japan provide transparency to guarantee the water is disposed of correctly. As a result of its own government’s support for the Japanese proposal, fierce domestic political tension has arisen.

Reactions and Ratings

President Yoon has been praised for foreign policy and security, especially his efforts on strengthening ties and pursuing detente with Japan. But his approval rating has been dipping lately. Especially Yoon’s stance over the forced labor issue where he stated having no intentions to seek reparations from Japan after compensating victims. According to polls, a sizable majority of South Koreans disagree with Yoon’s handling of the problem. Although they appreciate the efforts to forge stronger ties, they are unable to get past the past. The recent support for nuclear discharge inevitably affects the rating further. 

In Japan as well, this decision has sparked controversy domestically. Concerns range from potential environmental impacts on marine life to the potential reputational damage to the seafood industry. Some local communities have expressed strong opposition to the plan, citing potential negative consequences for the environment and health. In fact, a large portion of the Japanese population is concerned that increasing security cooperation with US and South Korea could push their nation into an economic Cold War with China, their main trade partner.

Future-Forging

The decision to discharge radioactive water is a complex and multifaceted one, involving technical, environmental, economic, and diplomatic considerations. It highlights the challenges of managing the aftermath of a nuclear disaster and the need to balance various factors to ensure safety and transparency. Effective communication, transparency, and tangible actions can help reassure the public and maintain their confidence in their leaders. Given the historical context of South Korea-Japan relations, any perceived mishandling of the Fukushima issue could trigger concerns about Japan’s intentions and transparency. If the issue becomes entwined with historical grievances, it may cause public discontent and have negative impacts on the ties, which is currently critical for countering security threats from China and North Korea.

[Photo by IAEA Imagebank, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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