July 15, 2011 10:28
The Japanese government has instructed officials to boycott Korean Air because the carrier marked the inauguration of the newly purchased A380 jumbo jet with a flight over Dokdo. Japan's Foreign Ministry sent e-mails to all its diplomats overseas instructing them to avoid Korean Air for one month starting Monday.
Tokyo is upset because it entertains a dubious territorial claim to the Korean islets.
Korea has protested against the boycott. The Foreign Ministry summoned Hideaki Mitsukoshi of the Japanese Embassy to express regret. "Unless there are problems in terms of air traffic control, a Korean flag carrier is free to do anything within our own air space," Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae said. "From the standpoint of bilateral relations, the Japanese decision is very disappointing. We'll have to see how the Japanese government responds to our demand to abandon the boycott."
Under a WTO treaty on materials procurement signed by Seoul and Tokyo, signatories are required to give the same treatment to private companies in member countries as to businesses in their own territories. But Tokyo apparently decided that the boycott does not violate this treaty. The Foreign Ministry is reviewing the pact to see if Japan has committed any violations.
"Japanese Foreign Ministry officials usually fly Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airways, so Korean Air won't be affected much, but we have to take seriously any measure by a government sanctioning a private business due to the symbolic significance," a government official said.
The boycott is apparently part of a Japanese strategy to highlight its territorial claim to the islets and shows that Japanese politics are in disarray after the massive earthquake and tsunami there in March. Prime Minister Naoto Kan faces increased pressure to resign over his failure to deal effectively with the nuclear accident in Fukushima, so his administration is apparently resorting to populist measures to shore up much-needed voter support.
Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, who authorized the ban on using Korean Air, is a former lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Party and a descendant of Hirobumi Ito, the first resident general of Korea during the Japanese colonial period.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry officially lodged complaints about Korean Air's test flight of the Airbus jumbo jet over Dokdo last month, but the conservative Liberal Democratic Party has criticized it for not taking stronger measures.
A Korean official said the boycott is "childish" and apparently intended to placate angry LDP lawmakers.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry is prone to gaffes. During a trilateral summit in Tokyo in May, Japanese officials shocked their Korean counterparts when they took President Lee Myung-bak and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to an unannounced vegetable tasting in Fukushima to publicize the safety of Japanese produce after the massive nuclear accident prompted many countries to ban imports. The move was seen as a serious breach of diplomatic etiquette.
Korean Air had no comment, but industry insiders agree that the boycott will have no financial impact since diplomats usually use their own flag carriers, but there are concerns that Japanese civilian passengers could follow suit.
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