Search All Site Content

Total Index: 6068 publications.

Subscribe to our Mailing List!

Sign up for our mailing list to keep up to date on all the latest developments.

The Peninsula

Fukushima Water Threatens to Dampen Korea-Japan Detente

Published July 31, 2023
Category: South Korea

Earlier this year, President Yoon Suk Yeol took steps to stabilize relations with Japan. Since then relations have been advanced through two bilateral summits, a meeting at the G7, and an expected trilateral summit later this August with the United States. Despite these advances, there are issues that could still constrain relations, specifically Japan’s plan to release contaminated water from Fukushima.

The release of water contaminated by radioactive particles from the Fukushima power plant in Japan is a critical issue for the region, and questions about its safety are not completely unfounded. It will be a difficult challenge for President Yoon to manage amid his desire to maintain good relations with Japan and one that may be impacting his domestic political capital.. In a recent public opinion poll taken after South Korean officials said that Japan’s plan to release the water followed international standards, Gallup Korea found that President Yoon Suk Yeol’s approval rating had fallen to of 32%. While it has stabilized in recent weeks, it has not recovered to the 42% approval rating a different pollster found ahead of the NATO summit in Lithuania.

The release of the contaminated water was decided two years ago in response to managing the nuclear power plant damaged in the massive earthquake of 2011 in northeastern Japan. Since the disaster a decade ago, water has been pumped into the nuclear core in order to prevent a meltdown. A Japanese government report published in April 2021 warned that the long-term storage of water in tanks was not feasible, as it impeded efforts to decommission the plant and occupied a growing area of space near the plant. In this context, then Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide said in 2021 that releasing the water was “an unavoidable issue” necessary to fully shut down the power plant. Although a specific date has not been determined, the Kishida administration is expected to begin releasing the water into the ocean a kilometer off shore later this year through an underwater tunnel.

Although the water being released by Japan has been treated, there remain significant concerns about the contaminants that remain after processing. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Advanced Liquid Processing System deployed by Japan is able to remove up to 62 nuclear contaminants from the water accumulated in Fukushima. However, the process is unable to remove tritium because of its chemical similarity to hydrogen. The Japanese foreign ministry says that the concentration of tritium in the water will be reduced to 1,500 Bq/L by mixing it with seawater before it is released into the ocean. Although it expects that the contaminated water will have a limited effect on living organisms, scientists say this may not be the case due to bioaccumulation of radioactive particles by animals in the ocean.

The opposition Democratic Party has seized on the issue to harshly criticize Japan. In early July, a delegation of eight members went so far as to travel to Japan in order to rally in front of Prime Minister Kishida’s home in Tōkyō. The Yonhap News Agency quoted Representative Ju Cheol-hyeon as saying that the Fukushima water release would be “an act against the world and humanity that would contaminate the world’s oceans.” The trip to Japan comes after the party condemned an IAEA report found Japan’s plan would have “a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment.” Representative Woo Won-shik said the report was “regrettable” for not analyzing the plan’s effect on neighboring countries, and accused the IAEA of being biased in Japan’s favor. Previously, Democratic Partly leader Lee Jae-myung said that the Yoon administration was “playing the role of a helper for Japan’s environmental destruction and its acts of threatening lives.”

For all of this criticism, the Yoon administration has been consistent on mentioning the issue of the contaminated water release when meeting with the Japanese side, in order to allay Korean concerns. The president raised the issue during his May summit with Prime Minister Kishida in Hiroshima. When they met again in Lithuania this month, President Yoon asked his counterpart to include Korean experts in the team monitoring the discharge, share information in real time, and alert Seoul in the event radiation levels exceeded Japanese standards. The former point has not been finalized, despite Foreign Minister Park Jin mentioning it during his meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa during a meeting in Indonesia. But it is likely Korea will be allowed to participate in the monitoring team. Japan previously allowed Korean experts to tour the water treatment facilities and briefed them on the water release plan in May. Although it withheld its endorsement pending Japan’s own finalization of the plan, the Korean government’s own assessment found it consistent with international standards. Government Policy Coordination Minister Bang Moon-kyu said that projections suggested it would be five to ten years before the Fukushima water would affect Korea, and even then it would “not have any meaningful impact.”

Given the sensitivities of both fears about radiation and relations with Japan, it is difficult to see how the Yoon administration can improve its messaging towards the public. Even within Japan, the plan to release water has been contentious, with a recent survey finding 80.3% of respondents said the Japanese government’s explanations of the plan have been inadequate.

To be sure, the Yoon government has been taking steps to address the public’s concerns over the contaminated water. In addition to engaging the Japanese side and conducting its own analysis of the Japanese plan, the government also announced it would monitor seawater radiation levels at both sites in Korea as well as international waters off the Japanese coastline.

The Korean government needs to make greater efforts in assuring the public it is watching seriously the implementation of the water release plan. For its part, Tōkyō continues to engage its neighbors on the status of the contaminated water, including Korea. Seoul should emphasize to its domestic audience the efforts it is taking with both Japan and others in the region. The Oceans and Fisheries Ministry held briefings in June to educate the public regarding the safety of Korean seafood. Once Japan begins releasing the water, the Yoon government should consider holding further briefings to both show its proactivity in addressing any possible threats, as well as addressing specific concerns by both Korean industry and society.

The release of contaminated water from Fukushima will be a test of President Yoon’s political skills. He should not allow this issue to undo the progress he has made in revitalizing relations with Japan, which had frayed under his predecessor. While this is important, Korea also has a legitimate interest in ensuring the safety of its maritime environment for both industry and society, and addressing questions over how tritium interacts with organic tissue. As Japan prepares to release water from the Fukushima power plant, President Yoon will need to find a way to balance both his international priorities vis-a-vis Japan, with fending off domestic opposition to Japan’s plans.

Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the IAEA Imagebank photostream on flickr Creative Commons by David Osborn.

Return to the Peninsula

Stay Informed
Register to receive updates from KEI