In the wake of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s unexpected visit on Aug. 10 to Takeshima, an islet in the Sea of Japan, known as Dokdo in South Korea and claimed by both Japan and South Korea, relations between the two countries appear to be rapidly deteriorating.

Leaders and diplomats of both countries need to be coolheaded and careful about their behavior and language to prevent further deterioration of bilateral ties.

Self-restraint on the part of South Korea is especially called for since Mr. Lee’s Takeshima visit was apparently dictated by the domestic political situation.

On Aug. 17, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda sent a personal letter to Mr. Lee. In it, he expressed his regret over Mr. Lee’s visit to Takeshima and recent remarks over Japan-South Korea ties ,and proposed that Seoul join Tokyo in taking the sovereignty row over the Takeshima group of islets to the International Court of Justice.

South Korea refused to legally resolve the row at the ICJ. Japan’s attempt appears doomed because the court cannot begin an investigation without the consent of all parties involved in a territorial dispute.

But Japan anyhow will write a complaint and submit it to the ICJ. The complaint will detail the historical development involving the Takeshima issue and the status of the Takeshima islets in international law.

Many countries may not be aware of the existence of a territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea over a group of islets in the Sea of Japan. Japan can expect to gain the understanding and support from other countries over the issue by submitting the complaint to the ICJ.

South Korea’s refusal to go to the ICJ together with Japan could create the impression in the international community that its position over the Takeshima issue is weak from the viewpoint of international law.

Seoul should remember that by refusing Japan’s proposal, it has ditched a chance to resolve the issue in a fair and peaceful manner.

South Korea on Aug. 22 decided to send back Mr. Noda’s personal letter to Japan. But the next day an official of the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo who tried to hand the letter back to Japan was refused entry to the Japanese Foreign Ministry building.

A spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade explained that South Korea made the decision because Mr. Noda’s letter included “extremely unjust” arguments and that a South Korean response to the letter would be used by Japan in its attempt to turn the sovereignty issue over the Takeshima islets into a visible international dispute.

Whatever the reason, sending back the Japanese prime minister’s personal letter could be taken by the Japanese people as an insult to the Japanese state. South Korea apparently failed to think about its refusal carefully.

Still, Japan should use caution about taking retaliatory actions on the economic and other fronts because it can harm not only Japan-South Korea relations but also Japan’s own interests.

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