Shinzo Abe

Abe set to freeze court bid over islands dispute

Observers say Japanese premier is seeking better relations with Seoul as he struggles to handle three separate territorial disputes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 3:05am


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Japan is expected to put on hold a plan to take its territorial dispute with South Korea to the International Court of Justice as the new government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks to patch up ties between Tokyo and Seoul.

Abe on Wednesday met Hwang Woo-yea, chairman of the Saenuri Party, which won the December 19 election in South Korea, and reportedly expressed a desire to improve relations that have become strained over the past 12 months.

The tension is primarily over the two nations' competing claims to two rocky islets half-way between the two countries that are occupied by a South Korean police unit and a lone fisherman and his wife. Seoul identifies the islands as Dok-do on its maps but Japan still refers to the islands as Takeshima.

The territorial issue has rumbled on for years, but surged back into the headlines last year - with territorial disputes dominating much of Tokyo's relations with its neighbours - when President Lee Myung-bak landed on the islands in August to underline Seoul's refusal to relinquish sovereignty.

Since then, Abe has been elected and Lee is preparing to stand down in favour of Park Geun-hye. Abe plans to attend Ms Park's inauguration ceremony in Seoul next month.

"The simple reason behind this change of tactic is that Mr Abe would like to have friendly relations with South Korea instead of confrontation," said Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Tokyo's Meiji University .

"The dispute over Takeshima is one of the issues that the two governments need to address, but it is far from the only one. And the other issues are bigger and more strategically important for Japan - such as North Korea and China - and that is why Mr Abe is willing to let this matter rest."

Ito agrees the decision might not sit comfortably with many right-wing members of Abe's own Liberal Democratic Party or the nationalist voters who supported him in the election.

But Abe has the far more pressing issue of countering Beijing's claims to the Senkaku islands to deal with, as well as seeking progress in the dispute with Russia over ownership of four small islands off northern Hokkaido.

There is a sense that dealing with three separate territorial disputes with Japan's neighbours would be simply too much to handle at one time.

Referring the sovereignty issue to the International Court of Justice, as Tokyo was unilaterally planning to do after Seoul declined to have the court mediate on the dispute, would probably cause a new outpouring of anti-Japanese feeling in South Korea. The escalating tensions after Lee's visit to the islands were blamed for Seoul scrapping plans to open dialogue with Japan about defence and security exchanges.

But Ito believes it may be possible to resurrect the talks later.

"Mr Abe can explain away Mr Lee's visit as a private trip by an individual rather than as the head of the government, but that's not something that South Korea's leaders will be able to do repeatedly," he said.

"Both sides need to calm the situation down, bring it back to the status quo and show that the two new governments are starting with a clean slate."