SEOUL – South Korea will send back a letter that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda wrote to President Lee Myung Bak in which he described as regrettable Lee’s recent visit to disputed islets in the Sea of Japan as well as remarks he made regarding Emperor Akihito, a senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official said Wednesday.
“The news report is correct,” the official said when asked by a reporter to confirm a report by a South Korean newspaper of the decision to return the letter to its sender.
In the letter, which was handed to a minister at the South Korean Embassy in Japan, Noda also informed Lee of Japan’s plan to take the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice, and urged South Korea to act, bearing in mind the future of Japan-South Korea ties.
Lee’s Aug. 10 visit to the South Korea-held islets, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, drew the ire of Japan.
Meanwhile, Tokyo will send its ambassador to South Korea back to Seoul following his temporary withdrawal in protest of Lee’s visit to the disputed islets, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said Wednesday.
Ambassador Masatoshi Muto returned to Tokyo earlier this month after Lee visited the islets on Aug. 10.
Diplomatic tensions between the two countries have remained high since then, with Prime Minister Noda calling the visit “totally unacceptable.”
Genba told reporters Wednesday that Japan is sending Muto back to South Korea later that day so it has someone based in the country who can handle preparations to resolve the dispute based on international law while better communicating Japan’s position.
In a move aimed at drawing international attention to the issue, Japan formally proposed to South Korea on Tuesday that the two countries jointly seek a resolution at the International Court of Justice over the row. South Korea has rejected the proposed move.
Japan’s displeasure was fueled further by Lee’s recent remarks that Emperor Akihito must apologize for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula if he wishes to visit South Korea.
On Tuesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan reiterated Lee’s position before the South Korean Parliament, saying the Emperor “must apologize if circumstances call for an apology.”
Genba criticized his counterpart’s remark as “unproductive” and said this “will not benefit South Korea.” Japan protested via diplomatic channels Tuesday over Kim’s statement.
The Seoul side told Tokyo that Kim made the remark in the context of explaining Lee’s statement and that it does not reflect his personal opinion, Genba said.
Among other countermeasures, Japan is considering freezing bilateral meetings of top bureaucrats or higher-level officials.
Regarding the next steps Japan will take in response to Lee’s trip, Genba said, “We will make a decision by discerning whether South Korea is willing to take action with the future (of our relations) in mind.”
Japan claims the islands as part of Shimane Prefecture, saying they are an integral part of the country historically and under international law, and that South Korea’s occupation of the islets is illegal. Seoul says they are part of North Gyeongsang Province.