Noda May Skip S. Korea Summit After Lee Disputed Isles Trip

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda may postpone a summit next month with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak after Lee’s visit to islets claimed by both countries, the Nikkei newspaper reported.

South Korea and Japan were arranging a meeting between the two leaders on Sept. 8 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok, Russia, the paper said yesterday, without citing anyone. The report came after Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said on Aug. 11 Japan may refer the dispute to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice.

Lee’s Aug. 10 trip to the islets, known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, exacerbated tensions between Asia’s second and fourth-biggest economies. The two countries are mired in a dispute over compensating women who served as sex slaves during Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, which led to the last minute postponement of a defense pact in June.

“We have to get the international community to clearly understand our claims,” Gemba told reporters, according to a transcript on the Foreign Ministry’s website. “In order to achieve a peaceful resolution to this, we are considering measures that include appealing to the ICJ.”

A meeting between Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi and South Korean counterpart Bahk Jae Wan set for as early as this month has been postponed, according to a Japanese Finance Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to ministry policy. Kyodo News previously reported the delay.

Drills Postponed

Separately, South Korea postponed annual military drills near the disputed area, Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Lee Bung Woo said today in Seoul. The drills will be held sometime next month instead of mid-August, Lee said.

Japan is also engaged in a territorial spat with China over islands in the East China Sea. A group of Hong Kong activists yesterday left on a boat to visit the chain, known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, to support China’s claim, Kyodo said.

Lee’s visit to the rocky islets, the first by a South Korean president, prompted Japan to recall its ambassador to Seoul and call in South Korea’s envoy to Tokyo in protest. South Korea has bolstered its claims by stationing coast guard personnel there year-round and by building an offshore research center nearby.

Noda called Lee’s trip “unacceptable” at an Aug. 10 nationally televised press conference.

‘Extremely Regrettable’

“I have made efforts with South Korea’s President Lee to build a forward-looking relationship and in that context this is extremely regrettable,” he said.

The rocks lie 87 kilometers (54 miles) east from the closest South Korean territory, Ulleung Island, and 158 kilometers from the nearest Japanese land. The area includes fishing grounds and natural gas reserves and may also have oil, according to a South Korean government website.

In an indication of the friction the dispute has caused, a South Korean soccer player at the London Olympics held up a sign saying “Dokdo is our territory” in Korean after his team defeated Japan 2-0 on Aug. 10 to win the bronze medal. He was banned from the medal ceremony as a result.

Any appeal to the international court may have a limited impact because both parties have to recognize its jurisdiction in the matter, something South Korea has declined to do. Japan has twice brought the issue before the UN body to no avail.

South Korea last year said it will spend 400 billion won ($354 million) to build a breakwater, a power plant, an underwater observatory and a tunnel on the islets beginning in 2013. The dispute almost provoked a clash in April 2006, when South Korean gunboats went on alert to block a planned Japanese Coast Guard survey.

Lee’s government on June 29 postponed an agreement with Japan to share military intelligence hours before it was to be signed because of domestic opposition.