South Korean President Lee Myung-bak paid a surprise visit yesterday to islands at the center of a decades-long territorial dispute with Japan, which recalled its ambassador from Seoul in protest.
Lee was making the first-ever visit by a South Korean president to the rocky volcanic outcrops in the Sea of Japan (also known as the “East Sea” in South Korea), roughly midway between South Korea and its former colonial ruler Japan. Disregarding Tokyo’s warnings that the visit would strain already prickly relations, Lee toured the main island and shook hands with coastguards.
“Dokdo is our territory. We must keep it under close guard,” reports quoted him as saying.
Television footage showed him posing for a photograph in front of a rock painted with the slogan “ROK [Republic of Korea] territory.”
The South has stationed a small coastguard detachment since 1954 on the islands known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan.
Japan reacted angrily, recalling its envoy indefinitely and calling in Seoul’s ambassador to Tokyo to receive a strong protest.
“I told him I have no understanding of why President Lee visited the islands at this time,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, who had warned earlier in the day that a visit “would have a great impact” on relations.
The trip was made just days before the anniversary on Wednesday of Japan’s World War II surrender, which ended its 35-year rule over South Korea.
Lee’s conservative party faces a presidential election in December, although he himself is constitutionally barred from a second term. Many older South Koreans have bitter memories of Japan’s brutal rule. Historical disputes such as Dokdo still mar their relationship, despite close economic ties and a shared concern over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.
South Korea last week summoned a senior Japanese diplomat to protest against his country’s renewed claim to the islands in its latest defense white paper.
Earlier last month, it was Tokyo’s turn to protest when a South Korean rammed his truck into the main gate of Japan’s embassy in Seoul.
Among other issues, Seoul is irked at Tokyo’s refusal to compensate elderly South Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops in World War II.
In June, the South shelved the signing of a military information-sharing agreement with Japan following Korean protests. One analyst said Lee’s trip was an overreaction to diplomatic strains and should have been considered more thoroughly.
Strategically, the visit to the Dokdo islets would be one of the strongest actions the president could take, Jin Chang-soo of South Korea’s Sejong Institute think tank said.
“In the long term, considering there will be many problems [between the two countries], I doubt whether this is the right time to play this card,” he told reporters.
Jin said Japan was currently unstable, engaged in territorial disputes with other countries “and we’ve just added fuel to the fire. What good can it do?”
With just over six months until his term ends, Lee’s popularity has slumped amid corruption scandals allegedly involving his brother and close aides.
Dokdo has a total land area of 18.7 hectares. Apart from the coastguards, there are two civilian residents, an elderly man and his wife.
It is situated amid rich fishing grounds and Seoul officials say the seabed contains reserves of gas hydrates, although the amount is still unclear.