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Last-minute diplomatic negotiations have defused a high-seas showdown between Japan and South Korea over Japan’s plan to survey the ocean bed in the Sea of Japan near disputed islets known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.

Under the compromise reached, Japan withdrew the survey plan, South Korea will postpone trying to register Korean names for underwater features in the area and both countries will resume talks on demarcation of their exclusive economic zones in May at the earliest. But Seoul says that it will propose Korean names for such topographical features “at an appropriate time.” South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun Tuesday reiterated his country’s territorial right to the islets. The compromise is only a tentative solution. Both countries need to take a level-headed approach to the issue over the months and years to come.

Japan’s move was prompted by South Korea’s decision to officially register Korean names for seabed features in the area during a conference of the International Hydrographic Organization that starts June 21 in Germany. South Korea wanted to emphasize its claim to an exclusive economic zone that overlaps a zone claimed by Japan. Japan, meanwhile, wanted to maintain the status quo regarding the Japanese names now in use for seabed features in the area.

South Korea’s reaction was strong. President Roh called Japan’s survey plan an “action by the Japanese government to justify (Japan’s) past history of aggression.” Japan’s position that Takeshima was incorporated into Shimane Prefecture in 1905 embitters South Koreans because the Korean-Japanese Convention signed that year made Korea a protectorate under Japanese control.

The chilly relationship between the two countries’ leaders, largely due to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, helped turn the survey plan into a diplomatic dispute. Both Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Roh should refrain from engaging in actions that amplify nationalist sentiments, and keep in mind that past Japanese and Korean leaders wisely shelved the islet issue when they signed the 1965 Japan-South Korea Basic Treaty.

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