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Japanese Claim Touches Nerve in South Korea

Dispute Over Islands Rekindles Wrath Over Tokyo's Military Past

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page A17

SEOUL -- Angry swells of South Koreans have protested at the Japanese Embassy here for more than a week, burning the flag of the Rising Sun and expressing emotions so deep that some demonstrators have cut off their fingers. Riot police blocked a group of ex-military commandos from blowing up a propane gas tank at the embassy's gates.

The Korean wrath is the product of a territorial dispute over an uninhabited island chain known as Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean. Japan's ambassador in Seoul ignited the quarrel this month by reiterating his country's claim to the islands. And on Wednesday, a prefecture in Japan, cheered on by zealots in paramilitary garb, approved a measure reinforcing the claim it made to the islands a century ago during an era of Japanese military expansion in the region.


A man grapples with a South Korean protester, armed with a knife, to prevent him from stabbing himself at emotional protests in South Korea. (Seokyong Lee -- Bloomberg News)

The developments have rekindled charges about Japan's militarist past here. South Korean fighter jets have begun flying daily patrols of the disputed islands -- controlled by South Korea since the 1950s -- and the military issued a warning last week to a Japanese reconnaissance plane that officials say strayed too close to the volcanic outcroppings.

South Korean newspapers are decrying "a second invasion" by the Japanese. Citizens groups have called for a boycott of Japanese goods, and at several golf courses, Japanese players are no longer welcome. The official Web sites of both governments were attacked last week, reportedly by hackers from each other's nations, while the Japanese Foreign Ministry on Thursday advised citizens to be careful when traveling in South Korea.

A popular new electronic game in South Korea, "Defend Dokdo," depicts a character named "Patriot" who seeks revenge on the Japanese for massacring villagers on Dokdo -- despite the fact that the islands are, and always have been, unpopulated.

"It doesn't matter," said Cho Han Sin, vice president of KTF, or Korean Telecom Freetel, South Korea's second-largest cell phone company, which is distributing the game. "Now, this is a matter of national pride."

Analysts say the chances of a military clash between Japan and South Korea -- the two closest U.S. allies in Asia -- remain remote. But the extreme emotions underscore a spreading backlash in parts of East Asia over the perception of resurgent nationalism in Japan.

The territorial spat has touched a nerve in South Korea, which has maintained relatively close ties with Japan for the past 40 years despite having been occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945. The tension has touched off a wider dispute over the depiction of Japan's wartime actions in a new Japanese history book and a series of acts and statements by Japanese politicians that critics consider unrepentant for past behavior.

"The Japanese government is claiming territorial rights on our land that was annexed forcefully through the process of invasion and colonization and recovered after liberation," said Chung Dong Young, head of South Korea's National Security Council. "This is not just a territorial issue but an act that denies history . . . and tries to justify past aggression."

Japan's posture in the world is changing as it redefines its military after maintaining a 60-year official policy of pacifism. The country's nearly 240,000-member armed forces are referred to as Self-Defense Forces. With the backing of U.S. officials, Japan is moving toward modifying its post-World War II, U.S.-drafted constitution, which renounced war and forfeited the right to a military.

Japan says it needs military preparedness to deal with new threats in the region. North Korea declared itself a nuclear power last month and fired a ballistic missile over Japan in 1998. Intelligence officials say the North Korean government has missiles aimed at Japanese territory.

But experts note that Japan's wartime ally, Germany, was able to rebuild its military years ago largely with the blessing of its former enemies. While Germany's World War II past remains an issue in Europe, Japan faces far more animosity in Northeast Asia.

The Japanese national soccer team was brutally attacked several months ago in China, where anti-Japanese protesters and official media are decrying the return of Japanese imperialism. On March 1, South Korea's President Roh Moo Hyun chastised Japan, suggesting it needed to "apologize" and "compensate" for wartime actions.

Anti-Japanese sentiments are complicating international efforts to build regional consensus to force North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons. Furious over the territorial dispute, South Korea and Japan cancelled trips by high-ranking diplomats and politicians last week to discuss a common stance.


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