WASHINGTON – The United States appears to have no option but to take a neutral stance on the territorial row in simmering between Japan and South Korea, its two key allies in East Asia.
The row over the sovereignty of South Korean-administered Takeshima islets situated between the two countries flared up again when South Korean President Lee Myung Bak made an unprecedented visit to them Friday, underlining Seoul’s territorial claim.
“The U.S. government’s position for decades has been to not to take a position regarding the sovereignty of the Liancourt Rocks,” a State Department official said, referring to the islets by the appellation issued by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. The islets are called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.
“This is a long-standing dispute the two sides have handled with restraint in the past,” the official said. “We expect that they will continue to do so. We would welcome any outcome agreed by both (South) Korea and Japan.”
Lee’s visit to the disputed islands drew strong criticism from Tokyo, where Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called the move “totally unacceptable.”
Deteriorating ties between the two neighbors would not be welcomed by the United States, which hopes to beef up its influence in the region through trilateral cooperation to counter China’s growing military presence and North Korea’s provocative behavior.
Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank, said Lee’s visit is “unhelpful” for improving Japan-South Korean relations or supporting U.S. security objectives in Asia.
It is in all three countries’ interest to establish three strong legs in the triad of the United States, South Korea and Japan, but relations between Tokyo and Seoul have been the weakest link, Klingner said.
Noting that Lee’s visit was apparently aimed at “burnishing his nationalist credentials” at home after being criticized for attempting to seal a bilateral military accord with Tokyo, Klingner said that being depicted as pro-Japan is, in some South Korean circles, more damaging than being labeled pro-North Korea.
He said the U.S. should continue private efforts to urge Seoul and Tokyo to separate the sensitive historic issues and territorial disputes so they don’t hamper progress on strategic interests.
The South Korean Consulate General in Hiroshima was vandalized overnight in an apparent response to President Lee Myung Bak’s visit to disputed islands in the Sea of Japan on Friday, the police said.
During a routine patrol of the facility at around 2:50 a.m., glass panes in the building’s front door were found shattered, apparently by a brick discovered nearby, said the police, who are investigating the incident.
No one was in the building at the time of the incident.
Financial talks on hold
Japan will postpone financial talks with South Korea scheduled for late August in Seoul, according to government officials.
A government source said Friday that Japan is having “difficulty in scheduling” the discussions.
However, the move was apparently made to protest the surprise visit earlier in the day by South Korean President Lee Myung Bak to Sea of Japan islets at the center of a decades-old territorial dispute.
The bilateral financial dialogue started in 2006 as a forum for discussions between Japanese and South Korean finance ministry officials.
At this year’s gathering, the fifth of its kind, the two sides had arranged to hold talks involving their finance ministers, as well as lower-level officials.
At a news conference Friday evening, Finance Minister Jun Azumi said Lee’s visit to the Takeshima islands was extremely regrettable.
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