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Seoul hits back at Tokyo’s renewed claim to Dokdo

Japan’s defense white paper lists Korean islets as its territory

South Korea strongly protested against Japan’s move to claim Dokdo and will take strong countermeasures against any action to hurt its sovereignty, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

Japan described South Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo as its territory in a new defense white paper earlier in the day, upping tensions just a day after its politicians were sent back home under a entry ban by Seoul.

In the defense book newly approved by the Japanese Cabinet Tuesday, Tokyo claimed ownership of the rocky islets located in the East Sea between South Korea and Japan, and insisted that “territorial disputes with Korea remain unsolved as of today.”

It is the seventh consecutive year since 2005 that Japan’s annual defense white paper has referred to the islets, effectively controlled by Seoul, as its own.

South Korea “strongly protests against Japan’s move to claim Dokdo, which historically, geographically and legally belongs to Korea, as its own territory in its 2011 defense white paper,” Cho Byung-jae, spokesman of Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said.

“Our government will act strongly against any kind of action aimed at damaging our sovereignty,” he said. “I must say, such a move will inevitably affect the relations between the two countries.”

Tokyo has for decades laid territorial claims over Dokdo, which it calls Takeshima. The group of small volcanic islets lies in rich fishing grounds in the East Sea between South Korea and Japan, and are believed to contain large gas deposits.

The latest diplomatic tensions between the two neighboring countries started early last month when Japan imposed a one-month ban on the use of Korean Air flights by its diplomats in protest against the airline’s June 16 test flight of its first Airbus A380 above Dokdo.

A few weeks later, lawmakers of Japan’s right-wing opposition party said they would visit the South Korean island of Ulleungdo ― located about 90 kilometers from Dokdo ― to see for themselves “how South Koreans feel” about the issue that has been straining ties for six decades.

Reasoning it could not guarantee the safety of the politicians amid the public anger here, South Korea banned them from entering the country. Arriving at a Seoul airport on Monday, three Tokyo lawmakers spent nearly nine hours in the waiting room before giving up and returning to their country via the last flight to Japan.

Should the Tokyo lawmakers attempt to “visit the island again with the same purposes, South Korea will take the same kind of measure,” Cho said.

“We truly hope this kind of attitude will not be repeated,” he said.

Seoul took immediate countermeasures Monday.

The Foreign Ministry summoned diplomatic minister of the Japanese Embassy Nobukatsu Kanehara to lodge a complaint and released a statement under the ministry spokesman’s name. The measures are considered somewhat tougher compared to previous years when the ministry called in the Japanese embassy’s councilor with lower rank than a minister and released a statement under an unspecified official’s name.

A high-ranking ministry official said Seoul will deal with the issue “calmly but firmly,” adding such a move by Tokyo will “not help improve bilateral ties.”

“As diplomats, however, we will try not to let this issue affect the ties (with Japan) to an extreme,” the official added on the condition of customary anonymity.

South Korea has long believed it has no reason to overreact and draw international attention to an island that was its territory to begin with.

The Defense Ministry here also expressed regrets over Japan’s renewed claim to Dokdo saying it “sternly protests” the publication of the latest defense white paper.

“The Japanese government cannot hope for any future-oriented development in our military relations as long as it holds on to the claim to Dokdo,” the ministry said in a statement.

Members of the parliamentary special committee on Dokdo said they will hold a meeting at the island later this month as a symbolic gesture to show their Japanese counterparts that Dokdo belongs to Korea.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry indirectly approved of the plan, saying it sees “no reason to block action that will take place on the South Korean territory.”

Seoul also plans to send officials to the island to move forward the planned construction of an ocean research station and other facilities aimed at strengthening the country’s control over the island.

Despite the South Korean Foreign Ministry’s effort not to let the issue damage ties with Tokyo to an extreme extent, an negative impact is feared in the ongoing regional cooperation over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the tripartite cooperative measures between Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing, and the negotiations concerning a bilateral free trade deal, unnamed officials said.

By Shin Hae-in (