Tokyo to take isles row with Seoul to world court

South Korea rejects outright proposal to jointly ask ICJ to settle dispute

TOKYO - Japan has decided to bring its long-running territorial row with South Korea to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), even if it has to do so alone, in order to draw the world's attention to the contentious issue.

Tokyo confirmed yesterday it has officially urged Seoul to jointly ask the ICJ to settle the dispute over Takeshima, which the South Koreans call Dokdo.

The proposal, which the South Koreans rejected outright, was in response to South Korean President Lee Myung Bak's surprise visit earlier this month to the islands, which have been controlled by Seoul since 1952.

"I deeply regret that President Lee's recent visit to Takeshima and our stance are irreconcilable," Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told a ministerial meeting.

Mr Lee had said that Japan's unrepentant attitude over its harsh colonial rule over the Korean peninsula was a key reason for his visit, which quickly soured ties.

As part of counter-measures against its neighbour, Japan plans to scale back its currency swop agreement with South Korea from US$70 billion (S$88 billion) to US$13 billion.

In addition, Tokyo has decided to postpone several bilateral meetings with Seoul, including a meeting of senior finance officials scheduled for Saturday, and another scheduled to take place on the fringe of an Asean conference in Cambodia later this month.

The two neighbours have long asserted claims to the cluster of rocky outcrops in waters whose name is also in dispute. The Japanese call it Sea of Japan while the Koreans refer to it as the East Sea.

The outcrops are surrounded by rich fishing grounds believed to have large natural gas reserves.

Japan is concurrently embroiled in another row with China over a group of islands in the East China Sea. Tensions have run high since a group of mostly Hong Kong activists landed on the Diaoyu islands, which Japan calls Senkaku, last Wednesday. Four days later, activists from Japan also landed on the islands, sparking protests in cities across China.

In Seoul yesterday, Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan dismissed the ICJ proposal as "not worth consideration" even before it had been transmitted to his government through the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

"Our stance is that a territorial dispute does not exist because Dokdo is our territory," Mr Kim told a parliamentary session.

He warned that South Korea will take "stern measures" if Japan continues to raise the issue.

Similar proposals made by Japan in 1954 and 1962 were also instantly rejected. Anticipating that Seoul would most likely do the same this time, Tokyo is preparing to bring the case to the ICJ on its own to publicise the issue.

Reports said it would take about three months for Japan to prepare the necessary documents.

Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada warned against going too far. "We must not cause any major damage to overall ties between the two countries," he said.

Destabilising the Korean currency, for instance, will have repercussions for Japan, as the two economies are closely linked.

When the neighbours normalised ties in 1965, they agreed that any dispute that cannot be solved bilaterally through diplomatic means should be settled through arbitration by a third party. Seoul does not think this agreement applies because it insists there is no dispute concerning Dokdo.