Seoul, South Korea, Mar. 16 (UPI)
Throughout this week, a short alley just outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul was packed by demonstrators protesting Tokyo’s claim to South Korean-held islets and Japan’s school textbooks, which whitewash Japan’s brutal colonial rule over Korea.
Protestors — from aged women forced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese imperial army during World War II to Korean War veterans, school students and teachers and to housewives and children — shouted anti-Japanese slogans and waved South Korean national flags.
The unprecedented strong wave of anti-Japanese sentiment forced rival anti-communist activists and North Korea sympathizers in South Korea to set side their ideological confrontations to jointly counter what they call Japan’s infringement on their country’s territorial sovereignty.
North Korea has also eagerly jumped into the Seoul-Tokyo territorial dispute to forge a “unified” Korean stance against Japan, a key U.S. ally that is stepping up pressure on the communist state over its nuclear weapons drive.
In front of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul, angry protestors burned Japanese flags and portraits of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Ambassador to Seoul Toshiyuki Takano, who boldly declared that the Dokdo islets belong to Japan.
Venting his anger, a man in his sixties tore to pieces a large Japanese flag with handwritten slogans against Tokyo. A mother and her son each cut off a finger in a protest what they called Japan’s “devious” tricks to claim the islets. The two, who were immediately taken to a nearby hospital for treatment, said they were going to send their fingers to Koizumi in protest.
Former South Korean military agents scuffled with police as they tried to march into the embassy building. Scores young protestors also clashed with riot police while trying to scale a wall of the compound at midnight.
The embassy building, its steel gates closed, was almost completely cordoned off as police buses were parked the length of the front wall to keep protesters away. Thousands of police are stationed along the embassy.
Anti-Tokyo protests were highlighted on Wednesday when Japan’s provincial assembly adopted a motion to designate a day on its calendar to boost its claim to the islets, called Takeshima in Japan, ignoring Seoul’s warnings.
Japan’s Shimane Prefectural Assembly approved the measure making Feb. 22 “Takeshima Day” to back Tokyo’s claim of sovereignty over volcanic islets. The ordinance calls for promoting public activities to raise the nation’s awareness about the island and calls for an early establishment of Japan’s territorial rights over it.
The uninhabited South Korean-held islet, lying between the Korean peninsula and Japan’s largest main island of Honshu, has long been a source of territorial disputes between the two neighbors. South Korea, effectively controlling the group of small islets, has stationed a small detachment of police there.
Shimane’s vote has fueled anti-Japanese protests across South Korea. Hundreds of civic activists and citizens staged candlelight vigils in front of the Japanese Embassy.
“Dokdo is our territory,” “Withdraw invasion of Dokdo,” they yelled, holding banners reading: “Japanese history is history of invasion,” and “Japan, stop posing threats to Asian peace” and “Down with Koizumi! Boycott Japanese goods!”
“I am so outraged by the Japanese move, which shows a revival of Japan’s militarism. We will never tolerate them,” said Kim Chang-sul, a 55-year old shop owner.
Anti-Japanese protests were also held on Ullung island, neighboring the disputed islets. Koreans there launched fishing boats near Dokdo in protest. North Kyongsang Province, to which Dokdo belongs, severed its all ties with Shimane Prefecture.
In response to Japan’s move, the South Korean government vowed to maintain its grip on the disputed islets, issuing the strongest-ever statement against Japan in which it called the vote an attempt with “impure motives” aimed at damaging South Korea’s sovereignty.
“We make clear that the insensible action by the Shimane Prefecture has no international legal validity and has no impact on the current status of Dokdo,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We repeatedly state that Dokdo is historically, geographically and by international law clearly South Korea’s indigenous territory,” it said.
“If the Shimane Prefecture doesn’t immediately abandon the measure, our government will take all necessary measures, and we clearly state that the Japanese side will be held responsible for the situation in the future,” said the statement read by the ministry spokesman.
In a bid to boost its control, the government allowed citizens to visit the islets, which have been off-limits. The ban had been imposed out of concerns that free public access to the islets would only intensify a territorial dispute.
“We decided to open to public access Dokdo, designated as a natural protection area, with the people’s interest in the area growing,” Yoo Hong-joon, head of the Cultural Heritage Administration, told a press conference held soon after the Japanese vote.
A group of lawmakers left for Dokdo. South Korea’s major news media dispatched journalists and photographers to the islets.
Anti-Japanese sentiment was sparked late last month when Japan’s top envoy, Takano, told a press conference in Seoul that the Dokdo islets “historically and legally” belong to Japan.
Sentiment against Tokyo further worsened after news reports that new Japanese school textbook seriously distort the history of Japan’s colonial rule on the Korean peninsula. The new middle and high school textbooks written by right-wing nationalists to be screened by Japan’s Education Ministry in April are to be used from next year.
In the face of strong anti-Tokyo protests, Takano returned home last week after the Seoul government warned that it was determined to risk worsening ties with Japan to defend its sovereignty over the disputed island.
“This is an issue related to our territory and sovereignty, and therefore it can be said that the issue takes precedence over Korea-Japan relations and others,” Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told a news briefing.
Ban has canceled a planned visit to Japan in protest. President Roh Moo-hyun also called for Japan to apologize and provide compensation, urging Tokyo to follow in the footsteps of postwar Germany.
The ruling and opposition parties issued a statement criticizing Japan and urged the government to take stronger measures. They have agreed to make a bill to protect the islets. Korean residents in Japan, both pro-Pyongyang and pro-Seoul, are preparing to battle Tokyo’s territorial claims.
North Korea issued a strongly worded statement on Wednesday, demanding Tokyo not to infringe upon Korean territorial rights. “(The designation) is the extreme case of Japan’s characteristic of committing robbery with a brazen face,” said Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party.
By Jong-Heon Lee
UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL