Korea-Japan dispute strains longstanding alliances

South Korea's president has called recent disputes with Japan over territory, textbooks a potential 'diplomatic war.'

A messy moment between the South Korea and Japan got progressively messier this week. A sudden, bitter row over history and territory between the two main US allies in the Pacific was called a potential "diplomatic war" by an impassioned Korean President Roh Moo-hyun - who accused Japan of "rationalizing its history of invasion and colonization."

In an open letter to the people of Korea, and in terms that for discreet Asian diplomacy are probably unprecedented in frankness for a head of state, President Roh detailed their grievances with Japan. Among them: a proposed new high school history text that glorifies the early 20th century occupation of Korea by the imperial Japanese Army, and a recent vote by a Japanese prefecture to claim a historically symbolic island mid-way between the two nations.

"These moves nullify all the past reflection and apologies made by Japan," Roh said in the letter titled, "With Regard to Recent Korea-Japan Relations."

The row comes at a time when the US is aligning ever more strongly with Tokyo, and at a time when some analysts feel that the Roh government is drifting away from the triangular US-South Korea-Japan alliance that has been at the heart of Asian security since the Korean war.

Some Korean sources feel the issue could even dilute the kind of collective support needed to gain traction on the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons accession - though US diplomats disagree strongly.

A testy 'year of friendship'

At a minimum, one senior Western diplomat noted, Roh's intemperate statements shift the focus of attention away from Japanese perceived misdeeds or provocations, and onto the character of Roh himself, virtually letting Tokyo off the hook. Roh has made a series of speeches in recent months that have suggested his government is rethinking South Korea's role in the US-led Pacific alliance.

Japan and South Korea cohosted the 2002 World Cup, and this year is supposed to be a "year of friendship" between the two - though many events have recently been canceled.

Yesterday a set of right-wing Japanese politicians in Tokyo met to explore a legal claim on the island known here as Tokdo, something a senior Korean official described as akin to "pouring gasoline on a fire." Tokdo has been controlled by South Korea for more than 40 years.

Korean emotions rose this month after a local Japanese prefecture voted to make Feb. 22 "Takeshima Day." Takeshima is the Japanese name for the island.

The date and place are highly symbolic in the Korean mind. Japan first laid claims to the island on Feb. 22, 1905. The rock outcropping was one of the first territories seized by Japan as it went on to fully annex and occupy Korea.

The high school textbook, which is to face a screening on April 5 prior to approval, omits any mention of the Korean "comfort women" that Japanese soldiers used as sex slaves during the war. Instead, the Japanese occupation is described as being a positive and constructive force for Koreans.

"Asian countries have long histories, bright sides and dark sides, and on some parts of the past we can forgive wrongdoing and seek reconciliation," says Ambassador Song Ming-soon, a senior Foreign Ministry official. "In this case Japan is seeking to beautify its dark and aggressive part of history.... What happens next largely depends on the Japanese response."

In Seoul, the current dispute is palpable. It is slathered across front pages, heard in street protests, and debated at dinner tables. Some demonstrators have gone so far as to cut off fingers and attempt self-immolation - one even drowned to death.

In recent days, Mr. Roh's lackluster approval ratings have spiked upward as he has taken a headstrong approach.

Little awareness in Japan

In Tokyo, by contrast, the flare-up is a small inside story; many Japanese questioned about the history text in Tokyo this week, for example, had no idea a new book was being issued.

Tokyo officials have eschewed responsibility for the Tokdo vote, saying it is something done by a local government. On the textbooks, defenders say very few of them are adopted by local schools.

Koreans have stopped buying the "local" argument. They say Tokyo officially approves the textbooks. On Tokdo they note that national officials are supposed to stop acts that threaten sovereignty of neighbors. Moreover, the timing of the claim - 100 years after a local Japanese prefecture first claimed Tokdo - smacks of mockery to some Koreans.

Right-leaning intellectuals in Japan say that the rise of China's military, and the revelations about North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens has changed the climate.

Left-leaning public intellectuals in Japan like Masao Kunihiro, a former publisher, says that Japan refuses to face the past and has never dealt with what he calls a "form of historical amnesia so intense that it is something nearly clinical."

"We never treated the Koreans properly; we held them in contempt," says Mr. Kunihiro. "As a purebred Japanese I feel we need to know how we treated our neighbors."

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