By Jung Sung-ki
The government is considering dispatching Marines to replace a police contingent to the Dokdo islets to dispel Japan's territorial claim to the islets in the East Sea, government sources said Sunday.
The plan is part of measures to make the islets habitable for both permanent residents and visitors, as well as to bolster the security of Dokdo, they said.
The governing Grand National Party (GNP) proposed the idea during a policy coordination meeting with key government officials led by Prime Minister Han Seung-soo.
The government plans to evaluate the possible impact and effects from the proposal in a careful and measured manner, the sources said.
The move came after Tokyo announced last week a plan to refer to the islets as its territory in its revised curriculum handbook for teachers and textbook publishers.
``The government said it will look into the matter and weigh the effects that such a move can have on the overall situation,'' said Rep. Cha Myeong-jin, spokesman for the GNP.
The Ministry of National Defense, however, was skeptical about the idea, citing a possible military conflict between Seoul and Tokyo.
``Stationing armed forces on the islets could be interpreted by the international community that the islets are disputed area, weakening Seoul's sovereignty over Dokdo,'' a ministry official said on condition of anonymity. ``Such a move would rather offer a chance for Tokyo to get ready to use its military forces over the Dokdo issue.''
Located roughly halfway between South Korea and Japan in the East Sea, the rocky islets have been at the center of a decade-old row between the two neighboring countries with both sides claiming them to be their own. The area surrounding the islets is believed to be rich in fishing and undersea resources.
The islets were annexed by Japan along with the Korean Peninsula in 1910, but Tokyo claims its territorial rights to the islets were declared five years before the start of Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945.
Seoul has stationed a 50-strong police contingent on Dokdo since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War to reinforce its ownership.
During the meeting presided over by the prime minister in Seoul, the government and the ruling party agreed to implement a package of measures to turn the islets into ``habitable'' ones, according to GNP spokesman Cha Myeong-jin.
Currently, there are two permanent residents and two Ulleung county officials on the islets which have no public infrastructure.
In addition, the two sides agreed to conduct investigations of undersea minerals near Dokdo, to allow freer public access to the islets and turn Dokdo into a resort area with hotels, he said.
It is also reported that the government is considering building infrastructure to provide tap water, establish an oceanic scientific base and to dispatch public officials to the area.
Prime Minister Han dismissed Japan's repeated attempt to lay claim to Dokdo, which he called an act to harm peace in Northeast Asia, as well as the relations between Seoul and Tokyo that had improved following the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak.
``There is no reason to argue for and against our sovereignty over Dokdo since it's obvious that the islets are our territory from standpoints of history and geography and international law,'' Han said. ``It is a serious problem that Japan's Education Ministry has publicly distorted history.''
The government will use the expression ``measures for territorial protection of Dokdo'' instead of ``virtual control of Dokdo,'' as part of efforts to make certain sovereignty of the islets, Han said.
Following Japan's announcement on the publication of Japanese teaching manuals reaffirming its claim to Dokdo, South Korea rejected a Japanese proposal to hold bilateral talks in a regional security forum this week in Singapore. Seoul recalled its ambassador from Tokyo.
On the issue of the fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist at Mt. Geumgang in North Korea, the GNP criticized the government for not responding quicker to the incident and called for more effort to establish better crisis management and intelligence gathering capabilities on North Korea.
The government will seek ways to help facilitate intelligence sharing between South Korea and the United States on the North, officials from the government and the GNP said.
GNP lawmakers called on the government to take a more ``hands on'' approach to North Korea instead of letting the private sector deal with Pyongyang.