S.Korea: Row over islets hurts Japan ties
Ties between Japan and South Korea have been seriously hurt by a territorial dispute over desolate islands that lie in gas-rich waters, South Korean officials said on Thursday.
National Security Council chairman Chung Dong-young said Seoul regarded any Japanese claim to the islands -- called Tokto in Korea and Takeshima in Japan -- as an attempt to justify Japan's brutal 1910-1945 rule over the Korean Peninsula.
While reaffirming its exclusive rights to the rocky outcrops in the Sea of Japan, South Korea widened its protest to encompass a range of issues dating back to Japan's colonial rule.
"This is an act that seriously hurts the friendly relationship between South Korea and Japan," Chung said.
The outcrops lie midway between the two countries, about 140 miles offshore.
The dispute flared in late February when Japanese ambassador to Seoul Toshiyuki Takano restated Tokyo's position that the islands were "historically and legally" part of Japan.
The row deepened on Wednesday after the assembly in Japan's Shimane prefecture passed a symbolic ordinance to designate Feb. 22 as "Takeshima Day."
The South Korean government demanded its repeal, and there were angry demonstrations at Japan's embassy in Seoul.
CALLS FOR CALM
Chung urged South Koreans to remain calm over the issue, adding that Seoul stood by its belief that Japan was a partner for peace in Northeast Asia.
Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also called for calm.
"There are historical problems, but it's important not only to look to the past, but to look to the future and advance our friendship," Koizumi said.
Bilateral ties, never warm in the post-war era, have recently improved as booming trade in tourism and pop culture eased tensions.
But analyst Lee Jong-won said Tokyo underestimated the distrust felt for Japan in South Korea, where some see the recent reconciliation as having borne little fruit.
"There is a sense that reconciliation has backfired," said Lee, a political science professor at Tokyo's Rikkyo University.
On the streets of Seoul, opinion was firmly against Japan.
"It is time to show South Koreans' strong will to defend our sovereignty even if it means wedging a crack in the two countries' diplomatic ties," said security guard Paik Myeng-sun.
Reaction in Japan was relatively muted.
"If South Korea had acted in a friendly and calm manner, this would not have happened," said a man in his seventies in central Tokyo, referring to the Shimane prefecture's new law.
In a step sure to inflame tensions further, Seoul's state-run Korea Gas Corp. said on Thursday it would spend $225 million over the next decade for exploration near the islands.
A five-year exploration of the area, led by South Korea's energy ministry, estimated that it held 600 million tons of gas hydrate, solid ice-like deposits of water and natural gas.
The deposits are estimated to be worth $150 billion, Korea Gas said in a statement.