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Tension rises in Japan-S. Korea island dispute

South Korea demanded Wednesday that Japan abandon plans for a scientific survey of disputed islets in waters between the two countries.
/ Source: The Associated Press

South Korea demanded on Wednesday that Japan abandon plans for a scientific survey of disputed islets in waters between the two nations. But Tokyo refused, prompting South Korea to dispatch a flotilla of patrol boats to guard the territory.

One of two survey vessels docked on Japan’s west coast left port on Wednesday, headed for the islands. Japan has refused to provide a schedule; some news reports said the survey could start as soon as Thursday.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon warned Japan not to go ahead, saying his country — which has long protested Japan’s repeated claims to the islets — was preparing for “all scenarios” in the dispute.

South Korean local media have reported that Seoul may try to capture Japanese vessels entering disputed waters.

“If Japan pushes ahead ... we will react sternly to it in accordance with international and domestic laws,” Ban told a nationally televised news conference. “The responsibility for all problems caused by this lies with Japan.”

“The government is preparing countermeasures for all scenarios,” Ban said without elaborating. He spoke after President Roh Moo-hyun held a sudden meeting with security ministers to discuss the dispute.

Later in the day, the South Korean parliament passed a resolution calling for a halt to the survey.

Roh blasts ‘offensive provocation’
Ban’s comments came after Roh on Tuesday called the survey, expected to last through the end of June, an “offensive provocation.”

Japan, however, has flatly refused to abandon the project. Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said on Wednesday that Japan’s right to the study was protected under international law.

“I would like the South Korean side to understand this point well,” Abe told reporters. “Japan will calmly proceed with its activities in line with international law.”

The bluster on both sides, however, was coupled with calls to find a diplomatic solution to the impasse. The two countries have sparred repeatedly in recent years over the islets, which rise from waters rich in fish and other national resources.

The dispute flared recently when Japan’s Education Ministry edited public school textbooks to say the volcanic outcroppings belong to Japan. Seoul’s ambassador to Japan issued a formal complaint over the change.

The surveys are aimed at collecting hydrographic data. Japan’s Sankei and Asahi newspapers said the boats — 621-ton Meiyo and 605-ton Kaiyo — were to collect data before an international conference on ocean floor topography in June in Germany.

At the conference, South Korea was expected to propose its own name for the area surrounding the islets, the paper said. Seoul has long objected to the use of “Sea of Japan” to denote the body of water between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, preferring the name “East Sea.”

Rocky relations
The island tiff comes amid rocky relations between the two Asian neighbors.

South Korea, which nurses angry memories of Japan’s harsh 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula, has fervently objected to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to a Tokyo war shrine considered by critics to be a glorification of Japanese militarism.

Roh canceled a scheduled summit with Koizumi last year because of the shrine visits and later avoided a customary one-on-one meeting with the Japanese leader on the sidelines of a regional conference.

South Korea’s ambassador to Japan, Ra Jong-il, said that he’d seen relations between the two countries deteriorate in the two years since he arrived in Tokyo.

“This problem is another example of Japan’s long-standing attempt to distort history, and the problem must be resolved comprehensively,” he told reporters at the Japan Press Club.

Despite the political tension, however, economic and other exchanges between the two countries have remained intact and the two sides have also cooperated closely to resolve the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear program.