Japan on Thursday refused to take back a letter sent by its own prime minister after Seoul said it would not accept delivery of the note, as a row over islands threatened to descend into diplomatic farce.
It was the latest move in an increasingly bitter tit-for-tat dispute that has engulfed two of Asia’s largest economies for nearly two weeks.
South Korea said earlier in the day it would return the protest from Yoshihiko Noda without answering it, for fear any move to acknowledge the missive would bolster Tokyo’s claim to islands that both sides say they own.
That sparked an angry response from Tokyo, which accused its neighbour of contravening diplomatic norms.
“Under usual protocol, it is inconceivable that letters exchanged between leaders are sent back,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, the government’s top spokesman, told a news conference.
“I hope (South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak) will accept the letter, which was sent to deliver our prime minister’s thoughts.”
The letter to Lee has not even made it to Seoul, having been kept at the South’s embassy in Tokyo, foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-Young said, announcing the intention to hand the note back.
But in what was beginning to look like a real live game of hot potato, the Japanese foreign ministry turned away a South Korean diplomat, believed to have been carrying Noda’s letter, at the gate of the ministry building, NHK footage showed.
“I’m sorry to say this, but returning a diplomatic letter is below even being childish,” Senior vice Foreign minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi said at a press conference.
The letter was subsequently put in the post, registered delivery, a spokesman at the foreign ministry in Seoul said.
Despite their strong economic ties, the two countries have a frequently uneasy relationship, in which historical animosities constantly play in the background.
That relationship has sharply worsened since Lee paid a surprise August 10 visit to the Seoul-controlled islands, known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japan.
He said his trip, the first by a South Korean president, was intended to press Japan to settle grievances left over from its colonial rule in Korea from 1910-45.
Lee further angered Japan by saying later that Emperor Akihito must sincerely apologise for past excesses should he wish to visit South Korea.
Noda’s letter said Lee’s visit to the islands and his call on the emperor were “regrettable”, Kyodo News said.
The Japanese PM upped the ante in Tokyo on Thursday, telling lawmakers Lee’s remark “considerably deviates from common sense” and the president “should apologise for and retract it”.
He said Japan was keeping a cool head, but Seoul needed to calm down.
Tokyo, caught on the hop by the island visit, recalled its ambassador to Seoul, cancelled a planned visit by its finance minister scheduled for this month and said it would review a foreign exchange swap agreement.
South Korea then rejected Japan’s proposal that the two countries ask the International Court of Justice to settle the dispute.
Japanese Foreign minister Koichiro Gemba poured oil on troubled waters on Wednesday, describing Seoul’s control over the islands as an “illegal occupation”.
“We lodge a strong protest… and demand Japan’s foreign minister immediately withdraw his remarks,” said spokesman Cho Tai-Young..
About 400 South Korean activists waving national flags rallied outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, urging Tokyo to withdraw its claim to the islands.
They also demanded Tokyo compensate elderly Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops in World War II and called on Akihito to make a sincere apology.
The embassy was guarded by about 100 riot police with plastic shields but there was no violence.
Seoul accused Tokyo of neglecting diplomatic etiquette by disclosing the contents of Noda’s letter in advance.
But one analyst said South Korea should have replied to Noda’s letter because Japan sees Seoul’s reaction as rude.
“There was no need to return the letter as it could worsen the emotional atmosphere between the two parties,” Lee Myon-Woo, a researcher at South Korea’s Sejong Institute think-tank, told AFP.