In Seoul, the forthcoming spill into the Pacific Ocean of contaminated water from the reactors at the Fukushima power plant after the 2011 nuclear incident awakens the local population and divides the political class.
In recent days, several demonstrations have been held to denounce this project that could contaminate the Pacific Ocean, but also complicate the rapprochement started with Japan.
Japan plans to release contaminated water because it can no longer store it. After the tsunami and the nuclear accident at the Fukushima plant in 2011, millions of liters of water had to be used to cool the reactors. But the water was contaminated by the different radioactive substances and could not be discharged directly into the ocean, so it had to be placed in large tanks.
But it mixed with rainwater and groundwater and now there is no place to store it.
Japan claims to have treated the 1.32 million tons of water to remove much of the radioactive material.
The process has been closely scrutinized by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has given the green light.
The contaminated water is expected to be released in the coming months. However, the South Koreans are concerned about this project, validated by the IAEA, with a scientific argument: current technologies can remove about sixty nuclides, radioactive substances, but not tritium, which worries both Japanese and South Korean fishermen.
Despite this, the project continues to meet international standards according to the IAEA.
Unresolved disputes between Japan and South Korea
Although other neighboring countries such as China and Taiwan have expressed their disagreement with the water dumping, South Korea has been especially vehement.
One of the reasons for this distrust is the unresolved disputes between the two countries due to Japanese state violence during the colonization of the peninsula.
Under the previous South Korean administration, relations between the neighbors deteriorated into a trade war.
During the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the South Korean team even brought their own food for fear that their athletes would ingest radioactive food. Additionally, fish imports from eight Japanese prefectures remain banned into South Korea, while Taiwan has lifted its ban.
But the new South Korean president, Yoon Suk-yeol, has tried in recent months to strengthen ties with Japan by making numerous concessions on memory. In return, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has invited South Korean experts to examine the process of treating the contaminated water.
But this is not enough for the moment to reassure South Korean public opinion.
The conclusions of the experts
The fear of a part of the South Korean population is that the visit of the South Korean delegation – proposed by the Japanese prime minister during his summit with the South Korean president at the beginning of the month – to Fukushima will mainly serve to legitimize the Japanese project.
Especially since the details of the mission headed by the 21 experts have been unclear for a long time and have led to lengthy negotiations between Seoul and Tokyo.
After meeting with the Japanese authorities on Monday, May 22, they will inspect the plant on Tuesday and Wednesday before returning to Seoul on Friday.
His conclusions will be scrutinized in South Korea, where anti-Japanese and nationalist sentiment remains strong, especially among the Democratic opposition electorate.
This matter is very delicate for the South Korean president. Yoon Suk-yeol remains unpopular after more than a year in power and much of his political legitimacy was built on his very pronounced rapprochement with Washington and Tokyo.