SEOUL – Japan delivered a diplomatic document to South Korea Tuesday proposing that the two countries should take their territorial dispute over a group of small islets to the primary judicial entity of the United Nations. The Japanese request is receiving a chilly reception from South Korean officials.
South Korea is responding bluntly and unequivocally to the latest in a series of heated words exchanged between Seoul and Tokyo.
A Japanese envoy in Seoul turned up at the Foreign Ministry with what is known among diplomats as a “note verbale” - an unsigned communication more casual than a diplomatic note but more formal than an official letter.
South Korean diplomats bluntly told lawmakers and reporters that the communication is unworthy of consideration.
The Foreign Ministry's chief spokesman, Cho Tai-young, says Dokdo - the area known as Takeshima in Japanese and claimed by Japan - is clearly the territory of the Republic of Korea historically, geographically and under international law.
Cho says Japan's suggestion to take the issue to the International Court of Justice has no value because no territorial dispute exists and thus there is no need for negotiations.
The decades-long simmering dispute has been mostly dormant until recently.
Renewed references in Japanese government-approved textbooks and official documents upset people in South Korea. That was followed by an unprecedented trip by President Lee Myung-bak this month to the islets - also known as the Liancourt Rocks - which measure less than 19 hectares.
South Korea has maintained a presence on the islets since 1952 when its coast guard was dispatched to the rocks nearly equidistant from the Korean peninsula and the main Japanese island of Honshu.
Japan also finds itself in lingering territorial disputes with Beijing and Taipei over a group of Japanese-held tiny islands (known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese) and the more expansive southern Kuril chain (which Japan calls its Northern Territories), which have been in Moscow's hands since the end of the Second World War.
A former spokesman for Japan's Foreign Ministry, Tomohiko Taniguchi, says Japanese politicians and diplomats see a "dangerous trend taking shape" and are responding with forceful diplomacy against so-called Japan-bashing.
"There's been a notion gradually embedded into the minds of Japanese government leaders that a lot of provocations have been made, not only by the South Korean government but by the Chinese and Hong Kong people and Russia, precisely because the Japanese have become weaker both politically, but more importantly economically," Taniguchi said.
The South Korean president's recent call for Japan's emperor to explicitly apologize for his country's past aggression embittered even some of those in Japan who have worked for closer ties with Seoul.
Taniguchi, now a special guest professor at Keio University, says that was the second time this month Japan considered South Korea had crossed a red line.
"That's almost as if they put gasoline into fire," he said.
South Korea's government shows no interest in trying to defuse the situation.
Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan characterized as unfair Japan's protest about Lee's remarks regarding Emperor Akihito.
Kim, answering a question during a committee meeting of the National Assembly, said the president was responding to a question raised in a meeting with teachers - thus the call for an apology by the emperor was not a request that Seoul has officially communicated to Tokyo.
Meanwhile, South Korean Foreign Ministry officials say a high-level Japanese diplomat briefed his counterpart in Seoul by telephone Tuesday about Japan's upcoming talks with North Korea.
Officials in Tokyo have said the Red Cross talks, to be held in Beijing on August 29, will focus on humanitarian issues, including the unresolved abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s. But North Korea's state-run media has accused Japan of “chilling the atmosphere” by proposing to raise the sensitive matter at what would be the first such meeting between Japanese and North Korean officials in four years.