South Korean’s Visit to Disputed Islets Angers Japan
South Korea — President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea flew to a set of islets locked in a territorial dispute with Japan on Friday, dismissing protests from Tokyo and making a trip that was bound to heighten diplomatic tensions between Washington’s two key Asian allies.
Japan called Mr. Lee’s visit “unacceptable” and recalled its ambassador from Seoul in protest, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told reporters in Tokyo.
Adding drama to the simmering historical hostility that Mr. Lee’s surprise trip magnified, South Korea and Japan were set to clash in London on Friday for the Olympic bronze medal in men’s soccer, a game to be watched by millions of people in both countries.
Although South Korean cabinet ministers and national legislators had previously visited the barely inhabitable volcanic outcroppings in the sea between Korea and Japan, Mr. Lee was the first South Korean president to travel there to highlight his country’s territorial control. A squadron of armed South Korean police officers have manned the islets, called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, since the 1950s. An elderly fishing couple also lives there with government support.
“Dokdo is truly our territory, and it’s worth defending with our lives,” Mr. Lee told the police officers, according to the national news agency Yonhap, whose reporter accompanied the presidential entourage.
With his popularity plummeting amid corruption scandals implicating his associates, Mr. Lee is badly in need of a boost to his political leverage. Opposition politicians were quick to accuse him of making the unprecedented presidential trip to tap South Koreans’ deep-seated nationalistic sentiments against Japan for gains in domestic politics. Although Mr. Lee is banned by law from seeking re-election in the presidential vote scheduled for December, his governing party feared being labeled “pro-Japanese” so much that it forced his government in June to postpone the signing of an agreement to share classified military data with its rival.
The dispute over the islets remains one of the most contentious unresolved issues from Japan’s often brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 until its World War II defeat in 1945.
Mr. Lee made Friday’s trip by helicopter, staying 70 minutes on the main islet and sharing pizza and chicken with the police guards, Yonhap reported.
His trip came after Japan angered South Koreans by reconfirming its territorial claim to the islets in its new defense white paper published late last month. Mr. Lee is scheduled to deliver his last major national speech as president on Wednesday, which South Korea celebrates as a major national holiday observing Japan’s World War II surrender and Korea’s liberation.
The islets are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and natural gas deposits. South Koreans also hold deep emotional attachment to the rocks. To them, Japan’s territorial claim epitomizes Japan’s early 20th-century aggression and what they consider its refusal to atone for its colonial occupation of Korea, during which Koreans were banned from using their Korean names and language.
The two countries are also divided over compensation for Korean women who historians said were forced or cheated into working as sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II. In July, a South Korean man rammed his light truck into the main gate of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Mr. Lee’s government said his trip was intended to counter Japan’s increasingly pronounced campaign to highlight its territorial claim to the islets. Last year, three Japanese lawmakers who wanted to visit the islets to advertise their country’s claim were denied entry to South Korea.
“We encourage good relations between both of our allies,” said Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesman of the United States State Department.
While Mr. Lee was visiting the islets, South Korean prosecutors announced that they had indicted a former aide to the president on charges of accepting bribes from a banker. He was the latest in a series of relatives and political allies of Mr. Lee to be indicted on corruption charges.Asian Defence News