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Japan, South Korea At Odds Again Over Territorial Dispute

A protester holds a sign during an anti-Japan rally denouncing Japan's sovereignty claim on the Dokdo islets, or Takeshima in Japanese, in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, July 21, 2011

A protester holds a sign during an anti-Japan rally denouncing Japan's sovereignty claim on the Dokdo islets, or Takeshima in Japanese, in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, July 21, 2011

South Korean government officials say they will react with unspecified but various “countermeasures” if a group of conservative Japanese lawmakers attempts to visit an island off the eastern Korean coast at the beginning of next month.

Korea’s Special Affairs Minister, Lee Jae-oh, posted a notice on the Twitter messaging service vowing to block any Japanese landing on the island “by all means.”

Yoshitaka Shindo, a lawmaker with Japan’s opposition party, says he and several other politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party will head to the island on August 1. Shindo's maternal grandfather was a general in the Imperial Japanese Army.

National pride at stake

The South Korea island is known as Ulleung. But Japan also has made historical claims to it and calls it Matsushima.

It is adjacent to a disputed set of small islands known as Liancourt Rocks in the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan.

North Korea also objects to the Japanese territorial claims. The area is reputed for its good fishing and significant gas deposits. But national pride is as much at stake as commercial value; the two Koreas and Japan have been arguing for decades over who owns the virtually uninhabited islets.

South Korea's prime minister, Kim Hwan-sik, says the proposed visit by the Japanese lawmakers would be regrettable. And officials at the foreign ministry in Seoul contend it would be better if the Japanese did not go.

But Ra Jong-il, South Korea's ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007, has a different view. He says it should not be a problem as long as the Japanese travel to Ulleung island by first going through South Korea, using their passports and appropriate visas.

"Insofar as they abide by domestic national law of Korea there is no way of stopping them, in a legal sense. If there is any sort of rash popular reactions against that it will only aggravate the situation," he said. "On the contrary, I think this is a good opportunity for the Koreans to persuade, to let them see with their own eyes how sort of unrealistic or illegal the Japanese claim over the island is."

Rising public anger

Professor Park Young-jun, who specializes in Japan policy at South Korea's National Defense University, agrees that too harsh of a reaction from Seoul would be counter-productive.

Park says that could turn the matter into an international issue, playing into the hands of the Japanese. That, he says, is not desirable for South Korea. Thus a more prudent and restrained response to the visit is desirable.

Despite expectations that the lawmakers will travel to the island on South Korean visas, there are already signs of rising public anger in South Korea.

During a demonstration in front of Japan's Embassy in Seoul on Wednesday, protesters attempted to burn a Japanese flag, but they were halted by police.

Nerves were already on edge after Korean Airlines last month staged a demonstration flight of a new aircraft over another well-known disputed island, called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.

Analysts here say that flight crossed a red line for Japan.

Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto ordered his diplomats not to fly the Korean carrier for one month in protest.

South Korea responded by demanding that Japan withdraw the boycott or face possible retaliation, terming it an unjustified sanction against a private company.

Distracting attention

Former Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi says both Seoul and Tokyo need to bring the rhetoric down a notch.

"They should put this issue in the back burner. Not much nationalistic flare has been burned on this issue, especially in recent times for the Japanese," he said. "No, the Japanese government is not going to give up. But one shouldn't think a lot of stakes for the Japanese have lied on this island."

Taniguchi, a special guest professor at Tokyo's Keio University, says Japan has much more at stake strategically when it comes to its territorial dispute with Beijing and Taiwan over the uninhabited Senkaku islands, in the East China Sea. Known in Chinese as Diaoyutai, the islands, under Japanese control, come with exploration rights to oil and gas fields. China sees the area as part of its core maritime security interests.

Taniguchi says the South Korean-Japanese territorial dispute is distracting the two neighbors from the coming challenges of a rising China.

"Now is the time for the Korean government and the Japanese government to invest or re-invest into scaling up their relationships because the security equation in this part of the world is changing very fast. And the United States wants Korea to be more fully onboard and they also want Japan to be more fully onboard," he said.

The United States maintains military bases in both Japan and South Korea and has a close alliance with both countries. However, the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul is more conditional. That is due, in large part, to Japan's colonization of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to the end of the World War II. Feelings of national pride remain strong in South Korea, even among the younger generations which did not experience first-hand the brutal Japanese occupation.