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Fury and Hope in the islet disputes between South Korea and Japan

Updated On: Apr 28, 2006

South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun has said some pretty tough things before but perhaps the toughest thus far has been reserved for Japan on 26 April 2006.

He said: 'To claim Dokdo, a symbol of our sovereignty, is to deny our full liberation and independence. We will never tolerate this...South Korea will mobilise all its national and diplomatic resources to take issue with Japan's unreasonable demands and press them to rectify their wrongdoing.' This came after both sides averted a maritime showdown over the disputed islets. Tokyo agreed to scrap the survey in exchange for Seoul’s delay in using Korean names to name seabed features at an international ocean-mapping conference.

But President Roh’s statements indicate that this truce could be just temporary. Seoul reserves the right to register Korean names for the features while Tokyo has indicated that it would correspondingly relaunch the maritime survey. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi urged the media to refrain from fueling the confrontation and appealed for calm: 'I think we should hold a summit. I have always said that I am ready to carry out a summit. We hope to respond calmly, with friendly relations between South Korea and Japan as a major premise. We should think comprehensively in a future-oriented manner.' But the main reason stopping the summit from taking place is not Dokdo (Takeshima) but Prime Minister Koizumi’s Yasukuni shrine visits – a problem that may prove to be knottier than the islet dispute itself.

However, Japan’s current crisis with both South Korea and even China may have a silver lining. In a crucial election by-election at Chiba which is considered as a litmus test for voter sentiments, 26-year-old Kazumi Ota of the opposition party Minshuto clinched a 995-vote victory over her Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rival Ken Saito, becoming the nation's youngest parliamentarian. This seems to indicate voter unhappiness with the ruling party led by PM Koizumi. Minshuto is led by veteran politician Ichiro Ozawa who has gone on the public record to criticize PM Koizumi’s shrine visits. He has also visited powerful Japanese trade associations representing big businesses who are against angering China with the shrine visits.

Even within PM Koizumi’s own party, a potential candidate for the next Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and his faction as well as the pro-China Yohei Kono faction have spoken out against the shrine visits. Fukuda was Koizumi's first chief cabinet secretary and is considered well-connected in Beijing and Washington. Fukuda has also won backing from businesses and major media concerned about relations with China. If these anti-Yasukuni forces gather momentum or if Ozawa’s reinvigorated Minshuto party makes a successful comeback, there may be hope of resolving the islets disputes between Japan and South Korea with greater interactions as well as restoration of summits between the two East Asian nations.

Sources:

Roh hammers Japan for 'imperialistic' ambitions (Straits Times, 26 April 2006)

Koizumi's party suffers election jolt (Straits Times, 26 April 2006)

DPJ win helps Ozawa, reflects anti-LDP mood (Japan Times, 25 April 2006)

Eyes turn to successor as Koizumi enters sixth year (Channelnewsasia, 25 April 2006)

Roh blasts Japan over Takeshima; Koizumi urges calm in territorial dispute (Asahi Shimbun, 25 April 2006)

S. Korean president slams Japan over territorial dispute (Straits Times, 25 April 2006)

S Korea warns Japan over islands (BBC, 25 April 2006)

TokyoSeoul recall ships from islets (Straits Times, 24 April 2006)

Japan and S. Korea the same under the surface (Asahi Shimbun, 22 April 2006)