By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, March 30 (Yonhap) -- Japan's licensing of a series of new school textbooks renewing the country's territorial claims over South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo is a bad decision that hurts Tokyo's own national interests, analysts said Wednesday.
After a year of review, Japan's Education Ministry approved 18 geography, history and citizenship textbooks for use at middle schools from next year, with 12 of them describing the cluster of rocky islets in the East Sea as Japanese territory.
The move represents a bolstering of Japan's claims over the islets because only 10 of the 23 textbooks currently in use have the territorial claims. In particular, the number of texts claiming South Korea is "illegally occupying" Dokdo rose from one to four.
Japanese school textbooks containing the territorial claims or glorifying the country's wartime past have long been considered a thorn in relations between Seoul and Tokyo as resentment over Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea still runs deep here.
But the latest textbook approval was even more frustrating to South Koreans as it came at a time when they have been pouring out sympathy and support for the former colonial ruler suffering from a devastating earthquake and tsunami. It appears inevitable for the warming relations between the two sides to cool.
South Korea planned to issue a statement of regret and call in the Japanese ambassador to lodge protests. Seoul's ambassador to Tokyo also plans to make a protest visit to Japan's foreign ministry.
On the surface, Japan's move appears to be for the sake of its national interests, but analysts say that Tokyo stands more to lose than gain from the row.
"I think this will do a lot of damage to Japan's national interests," said Yoon Deok-min, a senior analyst at the state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, adding that the move could cause South Koreans to distrust Japan again.
"Many people may think that they were betrayed by Japan, though we have to deal separately with the humanitarian matter and the textbook issue," he said, referring to the unsparing efforts that South Koreans have shown to help Japan after the quake and tsunami.
Greater distrust toward Japan among South Koreans would make it more difficult for Tokyo to push for defense cooperation with Seoul, Yoon said. Rekindling a territorial row with South Korea would also mean that Japan has such disputes with all of its neighbors, South Korea, China and Russia, he said.
Defense cooperation with the former colonial ruler is a sensitive matter in South Korea.
But as their relations warmed, the two sides began talking about such a possibility, with Tokyo's defense minister visiting Seoul in January and discussing what would be the first military cooperation agreement between them. Such efforts would inevitably suffer from the textbook row, Yoon said.
Chin Chang-soo, a senior analyst on Korea-Japan affairs for the Sejong Institute think tank, also said that cooperation with South Korea is essential for Japan to play a role in Asia at a time when China's influence in the region is growing.
"Unless Japan uses South Korea as a foothold in Asia, it won't be able to play an appropriate role," Chin said by phone from Washington where he has been spending his sabbatical year. "Unless Japan joins hands with South Korea, its position in the international community will decline."
Chin said that South Korea should calmly take steps one by one to reinforce its control of Dokdo, such as renovating the heliport there, every time Japan renews the territorial claim over the islets.
That will ultimately make Tokyo, especially nationalist conservatives, realize that such claims won't do any good to the country's national interests, he said.
He also stressed that South Korea should separate the row from its humanitarian help for Japan.
"It is true that this has poured cold water on the fund-raising campaign," he said. "But this is a different matter that shows the international community that South Korea is playing its role."
Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have warmed significantly since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009, ending decades of the Liberal Democratic Party's rule of the country, and took symbolic steps to heal the lingering scars of its colonial rule.
Last August, Prime Minister Naoto Kan offered a renewed apology for the colonial rule, promising to return centuries-old royal Korean books to Seoul and take other steps backing the apology. It was considered the clearest apology that Tokyo has ever offered to Seoul.
Their ties improved further recently as South Koreans and their government set aside hard feelings about the colonial rule and provided full support for quake-stricken Japan in an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy and support for the historical rival and former colonial ruler.
Chin said that the Democratic Party-led government must have had no choice but to go ahead and authorize the textbooks as planned because any backdown from the plan would touch off a wave of backlash from conservatives in the country, plunging the already-beleaguered party into greater difficulty.
One of the ways for Japan to make amends with South Korea is to take steps demonstrating the sincerity of last year's apology by Prime Minister Kan and carry out promises that it made at the time, including the return of the royal books, he said.
"If Japan continues to build such credentials and show sincerity, it will give South Korea an excuse" to keep relations with Tokyo less vulnerable to the territorial row, Chin said. "If this approach continues, then the Dokdo issue may be seen as a minor matter 100 years from now."
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