The administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is threatening the very basis of Seoul-Tokyo relations. After constant denials that the Japanese government had anything to do with forcing women to serve as sex slaves for the Imperial Army during World War II and paying homage at a shrine honoring war criminals, Abe has now said he wants to take his country's flimsy colonial claim to Korea's Dokdo islets to the International Court of Justice.
The comments come only a few days after Japan's Education Ministry approved new guidelines that would teach schoolchildren that Dokdo belongs to Japan.
No matter how much Abe huffs and puffs, it is impossible to take any case to the ICJ without the consent of the opposing party. He knows that perfectly well. Yet each time Seoul-Tokyo relations become strained, the Japanese government has used the ICJ threat as if it was some terrifying weapon. The last time it used the threat was when former President Lee Myung-bak visited Dokdo in 2012.
In October last year, Tokyo distributed a video detailing the claim, and in December it created a ministerial post to handle sovereignty issues. Last month it created an office under the prime minister tasked with dealing with territorial disputes. The Abe administration is clearly determined to be seen to throw its whole weight behind these matters, which also include bona-fide disputes with China and Russia.
The question is how much further Tokyo can go. It could for example dispatch research ships to waters near Dokdo, or rightwing Japanese groups could attempt to land on the Korean islets. That would cause bilateral relations of a degree unprecedented since the war.
In November last year, Abe attended a meeting in Tokyo by the Korea-Japan Cooperation Committee and voiced his desire to improve relations, while stressing the importance of the strong alliance between Korea, the U.S. and Japan. Now he seems ready to throw everything away. Heaven knows where his diplomatic priorities lie.