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Tokyo's Dokdo Claim to Affect Cooperation with Seoul on Global Issues: Envoy
South Korea's Ambassador to Tokyo is holding a press conference in Seoul on July 17, 2008.

Kwon Chul-hyun, South Korea's recalled ambassador to Japan, said in a press briefing on July 17, 2008 that Japan's renewed claim to a set of rocky islets in the East Sea may jeopardize Seoul's partnership with Tokyo on the international stage.

"The worst thing happened at a time when South Korea and Japan need to cooperate as partners in various aspects internationally," Kwon said adding that the most important thing is the six-way talks (on the North Korean nuclear program).

He said that although South Korea has supported Japan's position especially on the nuclear, missile, and abduction issues, Seoul's future stance will be affected by public opinion and voices of domestic political circles.

Kwon arrived here on July 15 for a temporary stay in protest at Japan's description of Dokdo as "disputed islets" in its new teaching manual to be used at junior high schools. South Korea says its sovereignty over Dokdo is not an issue of contention, as the islets clearly belong to Seoul.

He refused to predict when he will return to Tokyo, only saying, "Nothing has been scheduled yet."

The ambassador urged the Japanese government to drop its attempt to turn Dokdo into an internationally disputed area.

"I expect Japan to take corrective measures so as to normalize the collapsed diplomatic relations of the two nations," he said. "The most desirable measure is to delete the description from the teaching guidelines."

Meanwhile, South Korea ruled out a foreign ministerial meeting with Japan originally expected to be held next week in Singapore.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan is scheduled to hold bilateral meetings with his counterparts from several nations including the U.S., China, Russia, Australia, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum. But Japan is not on the list.

"Currently, there is no plan for foreign ministerial talks between South Korea and Japan," Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said in a separate media briefing.

He stopped short of providing the reason but sources said that South Korea rejected Japan's offer of a meeting between their foreign ministers in Singapore due to the Dokdo issue.

In the meantime, Yonhap News quoted South Korea's leading ruling party lawmaker on July 17 as having called on the government to annul its decade-old fisheries pact with Japan, claiming the Dokdo islets must be included in the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The longtime irritant in the Seoul-Tokyo relationship surfaced again this week as Japan identified Dokdo as a "disputed land" in its educational handbook for teachers, implying that the South Korean islets in the East Sea are part of its territory.

The distance between South Korea and Japan is less then 400 nautical miles, making the two neighbors prone to disputes over the exact extent of the EEZ.

"Our government designated Ulleung Island as the starting point of its EEZ in the 1999 fisheries agreement with Japan and left Dokdo in the 'middle zone,' which is not a legitimate term under international law," said Chung Mong-joon, a supreme council member of the ruling Grand National Party. "The agreement is partly to blame for Japan's wrong belief (that Dokdo is its territory)."

"The government must annul the deal immediately and make a new fishing pact by setting Dokdo as the starting point of Korea's EEZ," Chung added. "The fishing accord can be cancelled unilaterally by either side."

The EEZ issue is closely connected to the sovereignty of the rocky Dokdo islets, which are surrounded by rich fishing grounds.

Seoul and Tokyo had several rounds of talks on the economic zone issue from 1996 to 2000 with little progress.

In a tentative step, they signed a fisheries agreement in 1999, leaving the overlapping boundaries in waters of the East Sea as middle zones. Dokdo is located some 87 kilometers east of South Korea's Ulleung Island and about 157 kilometers northwest of Japan's Oki Island.

The two countries had agreed that the overlapping EEZ does not include the territorial waters of Dokdo, which are set at 12 nautical miles from the islets. South Korea has stationed a police contingent on the islets for five decades to enforce its ownership and block Japanese vessels from entering the nearby waters.

In a related move, 33 ruling and opposition party lawmakers submitted a motion Thursday to reinforce Seoul's sovereignty over Dokdo and include an area of up to 200 nautical miles from the islets in its EEZ.

"Japan is attempting to provoke international conflicts over Dokdo and take the case to the international court," ruling party lawmaker Lee Hye-hoon, who is leading the move, told reporters. "We need to first clearly state our dominion of the islets in domestic law as it is one of the important standards of judgment in the international court."

Japan has long attempted to claim sovereignty over the islets, citing its unilateral declaration of ownership a century ago following its victory in a war with Russia.

The latest provocation marked the first time Tokyo has raised the matter since the launch of South Korea's conservative Lee Myung-bak administration in February.

The incident is expected to strain the relationship between the two countries, which had taken a positive turn after Seoul's right-leaning president promised to enhance ties by not seeking an apology from Japan over issues linked to its brutal 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea.

Lee's two liberal predecessors took stern positions toward Japan, demanding a proper apology and compensation for its past atrocities.






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