East Asia’s Patriots and Populists

TOKYO – When faced with domestic worries, politicians often resort to foreign diversions – a simple axiom that is highly useful in assessing the increasingly tense sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas.

Although China is involved in the most wide-ranging and intense disputes, the most tragic is that between South Korea and Japan, given that both countries are democracies with almost identical strategic interests. On August 10, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the island of Takeshima (called Dokdo in Korean), which has been the subject of a territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea for 60 years. During a lecture at the Korea National University of Education four days later, he stoked tensions further, saying of the Emperor of Japan’s proposed visit: “If he wants to come, he should apologize first for the past.”

Despite his numerous achievements as president, Lee is trumpeting his nationalist/anti-Japanese credentials in the waning days of his term, which ends in February 2013. Indeed, so strident has he become that he refused to accept a message from Japan’s prime minister about his island visit.

Lee’s hyper-patriotism is new. Less than two months ago, he reached an agreement to share military intelligence with Japan – a deal that was subsequently abandoned, owing to fears that the opposition would attack his party’s presidential candidate as subservient to Japan. Lee’s recent behavior may also reflect his fear that he could suffer a fate similar to that of past South Korean presidents. Some have been assassinated, one committed suicide, and others were arrested and condemned to death after stepping down. Lee may have interpreted his brother’s arrest in July for accepting bribes as a prelude to such a fate.