Korea-Japan Dispute Strains Longstanding Alliances ; South Korea's President Has Called Recent Disputes with Japan over Territory, Textbooks a Potential 'Diplomatic War.'

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A messy moment between the South Korea and Japan got progressively messier this week. A sudden, bitter row over history and territory between the two main US allies in the Pacific was called a potential "diplomatic war" by an impassioned Korean President Roh Moo-hyun - who accused Japan of "rationalizing its history of invasion and colonization."

In an open letter to the people of Korea, and in terms that for discreet Asian diplomacy are probably unprecedented in frankness for a head of state, President Roh detailed their grievances with Japan. Among them: a proposed new high school history text that glorifies the early 20th century occupation of Korea by the imperial Japanese Army, and a recent vote by a Japanese prefecture to claim a historically symbolic island mid-way between the two nations.

"These moves nullify all the past reflection and apologies made by Japan," Roh said in the letter titled, "With Regard to Recent Korea-Japan Relations."

The row comes at a time when the US is aligning ever more strongly with Tokyo, and at a time when some analysts feel that the Roh government is drifting away from the triangular US-South Korea- Japan alliance that has been at the heart of Asian security since the Korean war.

Some Korean sources feel the issue could even dilute the kind of collective support needed to gain traction on the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons accession - though US diplomats disagree strongly.

A testy 'year of friendship'

At a minimum, one senior Western diplomat noted, Roh's intemperate statements shift the focus of attention away from Japanese perceived misdeeds or provocations, and onto the character of Roh himself, virtually letting Tokyo off the hook. Roh has made a series of speeches in recent months that have suggested his government is rethinking South Korea's role in the US-led Pacific alliance.

Japan and South Korea cohosted the 2002 World Cup, and this year is supposed to be a "year of friendship" between the two - though many events have recently been canceled.

Yesterday a set of right-wing Japanese politicians in Tokyo met to explore a legal claim on the island known here as Tokdo, something a senior Korean official described as akin to "pouring gasoline on a fire." Tokdo has been controlled by South Korea for more than 40 years.

Korean emotions rose this month after a local Japanese prefecture voted to make Feb. 22 "Takeshima Day." Takeshima is the Japanese name for the island.

The date and place are highly symbolic in the Korean mind. Japan first laid claims to the island on Feb. …