Can North Korea Get South to Join Dispute With Japan Over Two Islands in Asia?

North Korea has urged South Korea to join forces in rejecting Japan’s claims to a tiny set of disputed islets in the Sea of Japan, called the East Sea by the Koreas.

Both Koreas consider the two islands and their surrounding rocks—known collectively as Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese and the Liancourt Rocks in the U.S.—as part of the Korean Peninsula’s territory, while Japan claims them as their own. The islets are administered by South Korea, but the dispute once again made local headlines when the Olympic International Committee omitted a tiny blue dot signifying the islets from the Korean Unification Flag jointly held by the North and South Korea teams at the ongoing 2018 Winter Olympics.

Related: North Korea wants to reunite with South, but only if U.S. stays out

North Korea quickly blamed “Japanese reactionaries” attempting to discredit Korean claims to the islets. On Wednesday, official North Korean Cabinet newspaper Minju Joson published a commentary calling on South Korea to stand up to fellow U.S. ally Japan on one of the very few issues the Korean Peninsula foes agree on.

“The south side should come to its senses, raise its voice for defending the sovereignty and dignity of the nation and categorically reject the foreign forces’ imprudent interference in the above-said issue,” the article said, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

GettyImages-150091606 An aerial view of the remote islands disputed with Japan, known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, in the body of water known as the Sea of Japan in Japan and the East Sea in Korea, on August 10, 2012. North Korea hopes to take advantage of a recent, rare reproach with rival South Korea to recruit it against former colonial ruler Japan. DONG-A ILBO/AFP/GettyImages

South Korea and Japan share a complicated history with one another. Prior to World War II, the Japanese empire occupied the Korean Peninsula and has been accused by both Koreas of committing human rights abuses, including the use of Korean sex slaves, during this period. After the war, the U.S. occupied Japan and divided the Korean Peninsula along with fellow Allied power turned Cold War rival the Soviet Union.

After a devastating war pitted U.S.-backed South Korea against Soviet and Chinese-backed North Korea in the early 1950s, the governments of South Korea and Japan officially established relations in 1965. Despite both being staunch U.S. allies in the strategic Asia-Pacific, Japan’s denial of wrongdoing during its imperial past with Korea has created bitterness between the two countries, as has Seoul’s militarization of the islets and willingness to accept a rare, recent overture for peace talks from Pyongyang.

Third-generation North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un reached out to South Korea during a New Year’s speech, in which he also vowed to carry on testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of international sanctions and U.S. military pressure. The young ruler said he was interested in North Korea becoming involved in this month’s Olympic Games, hosted in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and diplomatic breakthroughs since have seen athletes from both countries participate jointly.

The ongoing peace talks have also allowed hundreds of North Korea officials into South Korea, including Kim Jong Un’s own sister Kim Yo Jong, making her the first of the ruling Kim dynasty to cross the border. These moves have been mostly welcomed by South Korea, but have been met with deep suspicion by the U.S. and Japan, which would first like to see an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program before opening a dialogue. 

RTX4SAM4 A map published on February 8 locates the disputed Liancourt Rocks islands, known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan. Reuters

As North and South Korean women’s ice hockey players performed united against the Japanese team at the quadrennial event, as NPR reported Tuesday, international tensions continued to play out. The South Korean Foreign Ministry criticized Japan last week, expressing its “deep regrets” over Tokyo’s decision to include Japan territorial claims to the contested islets in state-run guidelines for high school textbooks, according to the official Yonhap News Agency.

The islets were again the subject of Olympic censorship on Wednesday, as The Korea Times recounted. Yura Min and Alexander Gamelin, two U.S.-born ice dancers performing for South Korea at the free dance competition, were given the opportunity to perform to the Korean folk song “Arirang,” considered the unofficial anthem of both Koreas and a sign of their shared cultural heritage. However, a line referring to Dokdo was removed from the somber ballad in order not to offend Japan.