South Korea, Japan Raise Tension Over Islet Group

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 20, 2006

TOKYO, April 19 -- A long-simmering dispute over a group of islets escalated sharply Wednesday, with South Korea dispatching a flotilla of 20 patrol ships toward the territory as the Japanese coast guard sought to conduct an official survey in surrounding waters.

The South Korean move came as Japan rejected a warning from Seoul and vowed to forge ahead with a six-week mapping expedition aimed at bolstering Tokyo's legal claims to the rocky outcroppings controlled by South Korea. Enraged officials in Seoul put their maritime forces on high alert and strongly suggested they would use force if necessary to prevent two Japanese ships from entering waters claimed by South Korea. The islets, located between the two countries, are known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.

President Roh Moo Hyun called an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss South Korea's options and denounced Japan's move as an "offensive provocation." Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon warned that South Korea would "act sternly" and was preparing "countermeasures for all scenarios."

Most analysts dismissed the notion that the two East Asian powers would come into direct military conflict over the islets, but at the very least, the intensifying dispute poses new challenges for the United States. The latest events dramatically widened a growing diplomatic breach between Washington's two biggest allies in the region at a time when they are struggling to present a united front on China's military rise and North Korea's nuclear belligerence.

The tensions also underscored the broader frictions between Japan and its neighbors as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has taken a more assertive stance on a series of issues, including territorial claims dating to Tokyo's long military buildup before World War II.

Both South Korea and China have expressed outrage at the recasting of history textbooks here to support Japan's long-held territorial claims and allegedly whitewash its past aggression. On Wednesday, South Korean politicians said they would insist on linking resolution of the islet dispute to what they condemned as a pattern of resurgent militarism by Japan.

Shinzo Abe, Koizumi's chief cabinet secretary, called for understanding and dialogue to resolve the islet dispute. Japanese media reports indicated the two expedition ships were still lingering off Japan's coast late Wednesday evening, but Abe insisted Japan would not back down and was acting within its legal rights.

"We expect that the survey will be conducted peacefully with both sides dealing with it in a levelheaded manner," Abe told reporters in Tokyo.

One Japanese official familiar with the situation said the decision to launch the mission was made after a South Korean government Web site announced plans to present Korean names for underwater geological formations in the contested area during a maritime conference in Germany in June. Japan is likely to use data from the surveying operation to support alternative names.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Japanese vessels were not expected to directly approach the islets and were likely to confine themselves to surrounding waters.

The Japanese public has yet to pay much attention to the dispute. But in South Korea, it has taken on huge nationalistic proportions.

Both nations maintain centuries-old claims to the area, which is coveted for fishing rights. But the South Koreans view Japan's 1905 move to enforce its control over the islets as a precursor to its invasion and 35-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula, from 1910 to 1945.

As Japan has stepped up its claims, the South Koreans have grown furious, increasing their police presence on the outcroppings and allowing a dutiful young South Korean couple to move there. "Save Dokdo," a video game in which players wipe out a merciless battalion of Japanese invaders, has become a hit in South Korea.

South Korea and Japan are additionally locked in a testy diplomatic battle over the name of the body of water surrounding the islets -- called the Sea of Japan by Tokyo and the East Sea by Seoul. Citing territorial and other disputes, Roh has repeatedly refused offers for a summit with Koizumi in Japan.

Analysts said that while the South Koreans may be overreacting to the mapping mission, the Japanese have also squandered any goodwill they might have expected from Seoul.

"Since Koizumi came to power, Japan's relations with East Asia have reached their worst point," said Satoshi Amako, an Asian Studies professor at Tokyo's Waseda University. "So emotions are now running high. No matter who succeeds Koizumi, the new leader must learn that worsening relations with Japan's neighbors don't profit either side."

Special correspondent Sachiko Sakamaki contributed to this report.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company