Tokyo says it may take isle dispute to the International Court of Justice

Takeshima tensions flare after Lee trip boosts claim

Kyodo

Japan may take a territorial row with South Korea to the International Court of Justice, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said Saturday, following President Lee Myung Bak’s unprecedented visit to a group of disputed islets the day before.

Genba made the announcement after being briefed by Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Masatoshi Muto, who was temporarily recalled shortly after Lee’s trip to the isles — called Takeshima by Tokyo and Dokdo by Seoul — in the Sea of Japan.

The government will also consider boosting its readiness to respond swiftly and firmly to territorial issues such as Lee’s visit, Genba told reporters, adding he will consider “measures designed to peacefully resolve disputes on the basis of international law, including submitting an application (to consider the case) to the International Court of Justice” in The Hague.

Taking the long-standing dispute to the court would allow Japan to promote its challenge to South Korea’s control of the islets on the global stage and “help the international community to better understand Japan’s sovereignty claim by explaining the issue more clearly,” Genba said.

Still, that may never come to pass because the court requires all parties involved in a territorial dispute to agree to submit an application before beginning proceedings.

In Seoul, a government official condemned Genba’s remarks as inappropriate. The official also said that Kim Sun Hwan, South Korea’s minister of foreign affairs and trade, on Friday reiterated Seoul’s stance on the issue to Genba during a phone conversation.

On Saturday, Genba said Japan has refrained from approaching the court over the islets for decades out of concern about the impact such a move would have on bilateral ties.

However, Lee’s trip means that “such consideration is no longer necessary,” he warned.

After South Korea stationed a coast guard garrison on one of the islets in 1954, effectively beginning its control over them, Tokyo twice proposed resolving the dispute at the court, but Seoul turned down both requests. The isles lie roughly halfway between the two countries.

Genba said he has yet to decide when Ambassador Muto will return to Seoul, and that he will consider the matter “while watching South Korea’s response.”

During his meeting with Muto, the foreign minister was briefed on the background to Lee’s visit and its possible purpose, as well as the potential repercussions. Other participants included Vice Minister Of Foreign Affairs Kenichiro Sasae and Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general of the ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau.

Lee traveled to the islets by helicopter via Ulleung Island, which lies northwest of the disputed isles, becoming the first South Korean president to visit them.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Friday voiced his extreme displeasure over the move, calling Lee’s trip “totally unacceptable.”

Noda said Japan will take “a firm stance” on the issue and that his government is considering postponing bilateral shuttle diplomacy, under which he and Lee visit each other once a year.

According to the arrangement, the prime minister is scheduled to travel to Seoul this year, but “current circumstances no longer allow the two countries to discuss a schedule for Noda’s visit,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Some officials in the ministry argue Japan also should notify South Korea that it is suspending reciprocal visits between their foreign ministers, as well as high-level talks among senior ministry officials.

The Takeshima group consists of two small islets and numerous reefs. Japan claims it is part of Shimane Prefecture, while South Korea says it falls under the jurisdiction of North Gyeongsang Province.