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Uneasy truce is struck over disputed islands

Korea ‘postpones’ name bid; Japan recalls ships

Apr 23,2006
The deterioration of bilateral ties between South Korea and Japan has been put on hold, at least temporarily. After two days of tense diplomatic negotiations, Seoul and Tokyo managed over the weekend to steer away from more confrontation; Japan halted its efforts to conduct a maritime exploration in the contested sea area, and South Korea postponed its bid to assign a new international name to a seabed feature in the area.
Both sides also agreed to begin negotiations next month on delimiting exclusive economic zone boundaries that have been unclear for years. Four earlier rounds of talks on that subject have been unsuccessful.
The two Japanese vessels that were awaiting a “go” signal just outside a port in southwestern Japan headed back to Tokyo yesterday. The ships were scheduled to explore the seabed near the Dokdo islets, known as Takeshima in Japan, a voyage apparently designed as a counter to Seoul’s efforts to strip a Japanese name from a sea valley in the area.
On Saturday, negotiations between Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi of Japan and his Korean counterpart, Yu Myung-hwan, seemed to have failed. Officials here hinted to reporters that no agreement was likely. But on Saturday evening, the two sides finally found what appeared to be the obvious compromise; no voyage, no new name.
Officials here hailed the outcome as a diplomatic victory. A South Korean familiar with the talks said yesterday in a background briefing that Seoul was ready at two different points to end the talks, but that Mr. Yu, already heading for his car, was called back by the Japanese to continue.
The sticking point, apparently, was Tokyo’s insistence that Korea completely abandon its call for the International Hydrographic Organization to assign a new international name to the sea valley, while Seoul stuck to its position that it had every right to do so. Japan did not forswear any future mapping expeditions; Korea agreed only not to raise the issue at the organization’s June meeting.
Speaking to the JoongAng Ilbo, Mr. Yu put the incident in the context not of fishing and mineral rights in the area, but also a philosophical contest over history and the two nations’ place in the regional order.
“We have weathered this incident, but my mind is heavy,” Mr. Yu said. “We have to buckle up for the real fight. Academically and systematically, we need to prepare,” said Mr. Yu. “In negotiations over the exclusive economic zones, we need cooperation that involves all related government organizations.”
Mr. Yu denied that the United States, a defense ally of both fractious neighbors, had played any role in putting out the latest brush fire. “Through various channels, we have told Christopher Hill and Alexander Vershbow the flaws in Tokyo’s position. The United States expressed its concern, but it didn’t meditate,” he said, speaking of the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Asia and its ambassador here. Last Thursday, the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun reported that the United States had begun to move to end the dispute.
Behind the scenes, senior politicians from both countries also evidently took a hand at mediation. A former Uri Party chairman, Moon Hee-sang, was in touch with former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori; the two men head their delegations to a legislative exchange group that works to improve bilateral ties.
The reaction in Tokyo was also generally one of satisfaction with the results. Sumita Nobuyoshi, the governor of Shimane prefecture, told a press conference he was satisfied because the dispute had put Dokdo’s status in the international spotlight. “The incident has shown that resolving the Takeshima issue is an unavoidable necessity. We expect early diplomatic negotiations by the government to establish its territorial sovereignty over Takeshima,” he said.
In March, the Shimane prefectural legislature designated Feb. 22 as “Takeshima Day,” a move that Seoul reacted to as if it had been made by a sovereign state. The resolution followed by a month an incident in Seoul where Toshiyuki Takano, then Japan’s ambassador here, was speaking at a news conference to mark Korea-Japan Friendship Year. Asked by a Korean reporter who owned Dokdo, he said it belonged to Japan.
After Saturday’s agreement, Mr. Yachi said he was relieved that an “unpredictable situation” had been avoided. Tokyo’s chief cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe, hailed the results, saying both sides adhered to international law.
Chinese media seemed to believe that Seoul had lost. The Xinhua News Agency said Tokyo had held the initiative throughout the spat, and agreed with Governor Nobuyoshi that the international attention to the dispute was a boon to Japan despite South Korea’s occupation of the islets.
The two nations now turn to setting parameters for the talks on delimiting their exclusive economic zones. The last of the four unsuccessful rounds to date was held in June 2000, when Tokyo proposed a line running between the Ulleung and Dokdo islets, putting Dokdo on their side. Although Seoul has used the Ulleung islets so far as its baseline for its economic claims, officials here have mused about using Dokto, further east, as the starting point.


by Brian Lee


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