South Korean officials on Tuesday rejected a proposal by Japan that the International Court of Justice settle a dispute over a group of Pacific islets. The islands have been a source of conflict for hundreds of years.
The two nations have legally disputed control of the islets - thought to be rich in natural gas deposits and surrounded by the Sea of Japan's dense fishing waters - since 1948.
The latest spat was sparked on August 10, when South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak visited the Seoul-controlled islets, called Dokdo in Korean. Lee's move, while applauded at home, was met with icy disdain by Japan, where the islands are called Takeshima.
"Dokdo is Korea's territory historically, geographically, and under international law a territorial dispute does not exist," South Korean foreign ministry spokesperson Cho tai-Younghe said. "Therefore, Japan's proposal to go to the ICJ is not even worth consideration."
South Korea also rejected Japanese proposals in 1954 and 1962 that called for the Hague-based International Court of Justice, the main judicial body of the United Nations, to rule on the islets' status.
"President Lee Myung-Bak and his cabinet members' landing on Takeshima does not fit with our policy and is extremely regrettable," Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said during a meeting with his own Cabinet on Tuesday. "We must take a firm stance on this," Noda added. "We must consider possible measures that we may take in the future."
Also on Tuesday, Japan hinted it may take the unusual step of extending the standoff into the economic arena in an effort to pressure the South Korean government into concessions.
Last Friday, Finance Minister Jun Azumi said Japan could potentially roll back an emergency currency swap designed to help the two economic superpowers avoid financial crisis. The deal, agreed to last year, is set to expire in October.
"Prime Minister Noda instructed ministers to prepare [a] peaceful solution in accordance with an international law, strengthen information policy … and consider possible additional measures," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters Tuesday.
But some outside experts said it was unlikely Japan would carry out any economic threats.
"They are talking about it but I am not sure they will carry out the threats," said Koichi Nakano, a professor at Tokyo's Sophia University. "Talk is cheap."
Nakano added that it appeared that the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, under increasing voter pressure and likely to lose in the next election, may have overreacted to domestic media criticism that they were too soft in disputes with neighbors.
So far, the only concrete measures taken by Japan have included recalling its ambassador to South Korea following Lee's visit to the islets and Finance Minister Azumi's cancellation of a trip to Seoul that had been planned for later this week. The Japanese government has also postponed two other ministerial-level meetings between the two countries that had been slated for late August.
In a bid to cement its claim to the islets, which are also known as the Liancourt Rocks, the South Korean government sent two citizens to live there in 1991 as proof of permanent habitation.
Even though the two countries remain technically at war, North Korea has sided with South Korea in the dispute, according to its state news agency.
Japan is also involved in a bitter dispute with China and Taiwan over a separate group of islets. That dispute sparked major protests in China last week, according to the news agency Reuters.
bm/mkg (AFP, Reuters)