Tokyo's territorial claim complicates ties with Seoul

Tokyo's territorial claim complicates ties with Seoul

Japan irked South Korea this week with two consecutive moves aimed at strengthening its territorial claim to the Dokdo islets that lie between the two countries.

Tokyo's Education Ministry on Monday unveiled the results of its regular review of textbooks for middle school students. All 18 textbooks approved by the ministry contained Japan's claim to South Korea's easternmost islets, with 13 of them saying Seoul is illegally occupying Dokdo, which is called Takeshima in Japan.

Tokyo also repeated its claim to the islets in its annual foreign policy report released Tuesday. In the 2015 Diplomatic Bluebook, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration argued that Dokdo, effectively controlled by South Korea, is Japan's territory in light of historical facts and international law.

Japan's latest moves worsened the already-strained ties between the two countries, which have locked horns over their shared history, as well as the territorial dispute. Repeatedly irking its closest neighbour will not serve to further enhance Japan's role in the international community on the 70th anniversary of its defeat in World War II.

Seoul responded by lodging a diplomatic protest and reiterating a statement that its sovereignty over Dokdo is indisputable by history, geography and international law.

But South Korea needs a more sophisticated response to Japan's systematic and well-measured attempt to strengthen and publicise its claim to Dokdo in Japan and abroad. The approval of school textbooks reflecting Tokyo's stance on the territorial dispute should be understood as coming in this context.

It is necessary for Korea to establish a system of close co-operation among the central administration, provincial governments and research institutes in handling issues involving Dokdo. Their responses should be closely coordinated to enable Seoul to keep a more consistent and coherent position in the territorial dispute with Tokyo.

Japan's latest moves risk posing a stumbling block to burgeoning efforts to forge a friendly atmosphere for improving relations between Seoul and Tokyo, which mark the 50th anniversary of setting up formal ties this year. What South Korean officials need now is strategic wisdom to keep that momentum and avoid being played into the hands of what some experts here see as Abe's tactic to put blame on Seoul for the stalled trilateral co-operation with the US in boosting regional security.

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