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(News Focus) S. Korea, Japan on collision course again over historical issues
SEOUL, Aug. 16 (Yonhap) -- A long-running diplomatic row between South Korea and Japan over Tokyo's wartime atrocities in the first half of the 20th century has flared up again since President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented visit to Dokdo, Seoul's easternmost islets claimed by Tokyo as its territory.

   After Lee's visit to Dokdo last Friday, Seoul and Tokyo appear to be on a collision course, as Lee publicly demanded on Tuesday an apology from Japanese Emperor Akihito over Japan's brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

   Marking the 67th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japan's colonial rule between 1910 and 1945 on Wednesday, Lee also did not shy away from raising the sensitive issue of Korean women who were forced to serve as sexual slaves for front-line Japanese soldiers during World War II.

   The simmering row between South Korea and Japan swelled into a major diplomatic fracas after Japan's two cabinet ministers paid their respects at a controversial war shrine, where convicted World War II criminals are honored, and Tokyo arrested 14 pro-China activists for sailing to disputed islands claimed by both Japan and China.

   Japan has been considering taking the issue of Dokdo to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and reportedly threatened to reconsider a US$70 billion currency swap arrangement with South Korea.

   Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters that Tokyo has not informed Seoul of such plans, saying he could not comment on those "hypothetic situations."

   Cho noted, however, that South Korea will not tolerate any claim by Japan over Dokdo.

   South Korea "cannot make a compromise with Japan over historical issues," Cho told reporters.

   "Dokdo is clearly a Korean territory historically, geographically, and under international law," Cho said. "We have been responding in a firm and stern manner. There will be no change in such policy and we will continue to deal with the issue in the same manner."

   Asked about the Japanese move to ask the ICJ to resolve the issue of Dokdo, Cho bluntly replied, "We have neither any reason to go to the International Court of Justice nor any intention to go there."

   South Korea expressed regret after Japanese cabinet members and lawmakers resumed the long-condemned ritual of paying homage at a Tokyo shrine seen as a symbol of Japan's imperialistic past.

   Jin Matsubara, a chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, and Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Yuichiro Hata paid their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine. It was the first time Japanese cabinet members have visited the shrine since the Democratic Party of Japan rose to power in 2009.

   "As the responsible Japanese leaders paid their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine, we have to think about whether they truly repent for their history," Cho said.

   In protest of Lee's visit to Dokdo, Japan recalled its ambassador to Seoul, Masatoshi Muto, and Seoul officials said it would take some time for Muto to return.

   Experts said the diplomatic tension among South Korea and Japan has been boiling for some time, but they would eventually mend fences.

   "Korea-Japan relations involve mutual assistance in the fields of economy and culture," said Lee Won-deok, a Japanese politics professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.

   However, Lee said political leaders from the two nations should keep in mind the importance of the Korean people's "emotional sensitivity over history-related issues, including Dokdo."

   Meanwhile, the United States, which has urged South Korea and Japan to forge more cooperation in the face of the rise of China's military and North Korea's growing hostility, reiterated its long-held stance of taking no position on the issues.

   "We continue to say the same thing to both sides, that we don't take a position on this ourselves; we want to see them work it out through dialogue," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters early this week.

   kdh@yna.co.kr
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