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Japan’s ‘Irish Question’

Is South Korea slipping away?

Mar 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 24 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
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It is important to note that Éamon de Valera had his revenge on the British for the execution of his comrades-in-arms in 1916. When the Nazi blitzkrieg rolled over Western Europe two decades later, it was a democratic, but still bitter and divided, Ireland under then-president de Valera which maintained its neutrality, along with fascist Spain and Portugal. The handover of the Irish Treaty Ports from British naval to Irish control in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, particularly infuriated Winston Churchill, a former First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill took his old nemesis de Valera to task in a speech to Parliament, adding that “these ports are, in fact, the sentinel towers of the western approaches, by which the 45,000,000 people in this island so enormously depend on foreign food for their daily bread, and by which they can carry on their trade, which is equally important to their existence.” Yet as the clouds of war approached, the Irish ports were closed to the British Navy. In a V-E Day radio broadcast in 1945, Churchill renewed his feud with de Valera by accusing his government of “frolicking with the Germans” during the war.

As the acrimony between Japan and South Korea continues to deepen, have Tokyo and Washington even contemplated the prospect of a de Valera-like declaration of neutrality? Could a disenchanted Seoul remain on the sidelines in an East China Sea crisis generated after a Japan-centered American pivot to Asia? Is the bitterness toward Tokyo by the South Korean people now at such a level that, like the Irish toward London in the 1930s, no government in Seoul would dare to lift a finger to help a neighboring democracy in crisis? Could Seoul conceivably even invoke the consultation wording contained in Article 2 of the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States to seek, as de Valera did with Britain, to deny access to ports and bases on the Korean peninsula—and even the use of the 28,500 U.S. forces stationed there—in a contingency involving a security threat to Japan?

Tokyo’s own Irish Question, left unresolved, may turn out no better than did London’s in 1939, when it was left without having Ireland to cover its back. 

Dennis P. Halpin, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins), is a former Peace Corps volunteer in South Korea, a former U.S. consul in Busan, and a former adviser on Asian issues on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

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