Japan and South Korea ministers abandon Washington press event amid island row

A long-running territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea has burst on to the global stage after their vice foreign ministers failed to attend a press conference in Washington with their US counterpart.

South Korean’s first vice-foreign minister, Choi Jong-kun, and Japan’s vice foreign minister, Takeo Mori, had been due to appear alongside the US deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, on Wednesday after the three countries discussed regional tensions, including Chinese military activity in the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

However, Sherman took questions from reporters alone after Choi and Mori pulled out of the news conference after a disagreement over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands, which are administered by South Korea but claimed by Japan.

Sherman noted “there are some bilateral differences between Japan and the Republic of Korea that are continuing to be resolved”, but said the cancellation of the joint news conference was not related to the earlier trilateral meeting, which she described as “constructive and substantive”.

Hours later, Masashi Mizobuchi, a spokesperson at the Japanese embassy in Washington, said Japanese officials had withdrawn from the media appearance in protest at a recent visit to the disputed islands by the chief of the South Korean police.

Mizobuchi said Japan had “lodged a strong protest” over the visit. “Under these circumstances, we have decided that it is inappropriate to hold a joint press conference,” he said, according to Reuters.

Kim Chang-yong, commissioner-general of South Korea’s national police agency, landed on the rocky islets on Tuesday, media reports said, in the first visit by the country’s police chief for 12 years.

“We cannot accept this at all and regard it as extremely unfortunate, considering that [the islands] are clearly an inherent part of Japan’s territory in view of historical facts and international laws,” Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, said.

The islands – also known as the Liancourt Rocks after a French whaling ship that was almost wrecked there in 1849 – lie 225km (140 miles) off the east coast of South Korea.

The Takeshima/Dokdo dispute is one of several bilateral issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula that have soured ties between the US allies, despite their common interest in addressing North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons.

In recent years, they have tussled over compensation for Korean forced labourers and Japan’s wartime use of sex slaves, known euphemistically as “comfort women”.

The three countries had reaffirmed their “shared commitment” to the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, said Sherman, who repeated Joe Biden’s offer of dialogue with North Korea.

“The United States does not harbour hostile intent for the DPRK,” she said, referring to the isolated country by its official name the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “We believe that diplomacy and dialogue are essential” to ridding the peninsula of nuclear weapons.

In a warning to China, Sherman said the US, Japan and South Korea opposed “activities that undermine, destabilise or threaten the rules-based international order” in the Indo-Pacific region and in the Straits of Taiwan.

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