SEOUL, March 16 -- South Korean officials denounced an ordinance passed Wednesday by a Japanese local council that reinforces Japan's claim to a disputed island chain between the two countries. The new law, and South Korea's reaction, escalated a quarrel that analysts say could damage their diplomatic ties.
The bill was approved by Japan's Shimane prefecture assembly as hundreds of nationalists sporting paramilitary gear urged the council on. The measure established an annual Takeshima Day, which highlights Japan's claim to the uninhabited volcanic outcroppings. The islands are known as Takeshima in Japanese and as Dokdo in Korean.
South Koreans guard the disputed islands, known as Takeshima in Japanese and as Dokdo in Korean. The uninhabited chain is coveted for fishing rights.
(Chosun Ilbo -- Reuters)
Debate on the measure has sparked more than a week of violent anti-Japanese protests in South Korea, which lodged an official complaint with Japan over the law. Lee Kyu Hyung, a spokesman for South Korea's Foreign Ministry, called the law an "impure intention to impair our sovereignty" and vowed that Japan would be held "fully responsible for any incident that may occur" as a result of its passage.
Last week, South Korea canceled a visit to Tokyo by Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon after Japanese officials said the issue was a local matter in which the national government could not interfere. On Wednesday, Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, called for calm. "Both sides need to deal with this in a levelheaded manner with the basic tone of friendship between Japan and South Korea, not swayed too much by the recent emotional conflict," he said in Tokyo.
South Korea announced a series of "counter-measures" aimed at Japan, including allowing citizens to make regular visits to the islands, something largely forbidden in the past. A Seoul city assemblyman visiting the Shimane prefecture assembly hall Wednesday was seized by Japanese police after he appeared to make preparations to cut his finger with a knife in order to write a statement in blood.
South Korea's National Security Council was also set to release a new policy statement on Thursday "redefining" relations with Japan, a country that has had a poor image here since its occupation of the Korea Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
The island issue has vanquished goodwill between the two countries, which had earlier proclaimed 2005 their year of "mutual friendship."
The islands are located in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, about 100 miles northwest of Japan's Oki Island and 46 miles from South Korea's nearest island. Occupied by South Korea in the 1950s, the islands are coveted largely for their fishing rights. The Japanese have called the occupation illegal.
Japan first claimed the islands 100 years ago as part of Shimane prefecture. The Japanese government notes that Korea at the time did not protest the claim. South Korean officials have said authorities were not in a position to do so given that the claim came during a Japanese military buildup that ultimately lead to the invasion and occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
Japan's ambassador to South Korea, Toshiyuki Takano, ignited a controversy on March 1 when he reiterated Japan's claim to the islands. He returned to Tokyo this week for consultations on the issue.