Lee Jae-oh, right, minister for special affairs and also lawmaker of the ruling Grand National Party, waves the national flag at Dokdo Monday. Lee headed to the islets on the same day when three conservative Japanese lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to travel to Ulleung Island, the nearest location to Dokdo, to rekindle the territory issue. / Yonhap
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Politicians have come under criticism for fanning nationalist sentiment and deteriorating ties between Seoul and Tokyo surrounding the issue of Dokdo.
The latest diplomatic spat over the territory was originally started by four conservative Japanese lawmakers and deepened as a Korean legislator fired back at them. Japan experts blamed the self-serving politicians for turning a blind eye to Seoul-Tokyo ties.
In an interview, Kwon Chul-hyun, former Korean ambassador to Japan, said the three Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers’ unsuccessful plan to travel to Ulleung Island, the nearest island to Dokdo, was politically motivated.
Initially four LDP legislators were scheduled to visit the island, but one cancelled his trip due to his parliamentary schedule.
“They intend to make the islets an internationally disputed territory. Domestically, the opposition party lawmakers are planning to regain power by creating and fanning the perception that the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is not tough enough to handle territorial disputes,” the envoy said.
Lee Myon-woo, director of the Regional Issues Studies Department of the Sejong Institute, said the conservative lawmakers’ controversial trip has not drawn as much attention among the Japanese public as intended.
Japanese media, including Asahi, Mainichi and Yomiuri newspapers, covered their Ulleung Island trip with short, fact-based stories. Few major newspapers dealt with their visit in great detail.
Lee said the four LDP hardliners tried to woo conservative voters, who are their key support base, by unsuccessfully pushing ahead with the controversial trip.
Previously when the LDP was the ruling party, he said, there were influential, sound-minded leaders who played their role in deterring them from going too far. “Now, the party seems not to have such reasonable figures.”
The Japanese lawmakers’ trip put the Japanese foreign ministry at odds with its Korean counterpart. Last Friday, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kim Sung-hwan called in Japanese ambassador to Seoul, Masatoshi Muto, to Kim’s office to protest the action.
Earlier, Kim delivered concerns over the four conservative politicians’ plan to visit the island to his Japanese counterpart at talks held on the sidelines of the Asian Regional Forum held in Bali, Indonesia, in July.
A Korean politician also played the nationalism card over the territorial issue. Lee Jae-oh of the ruling Grand National Party and minister for special affairs, sought to politicize the issue for his own agenda.
On his blog Lee said, “The descendants of war criminals have tried to put the sovereignty of Korea to the test (with an attempt to pay a visit to our territory).” He vowed to fight against them.
The politician, who is reportedly seeking a presidential bid next year, embarked on a four-day trip to Ulleung Island Sunday, declaring that the goal of his trip was to send an unmistakable message that Korea owns Dokdo.
At a meeting with 10 Ulleung residents, Lee pledged to push for setting up an airfield in order to invite more Korean tourists there. “If more people are coming to this island, this will help build awareness of Korea’s ownership of Dokdo,” he argued.
The fourth-term lawmaker said he would consult with the Ministry of Land, Transportation and Maritime Affairs and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance to make the airfield project happen after returning to Seoul.
His reaction came amid the government’s pursuit of quiet diplomacy over the territorial issue.
Seoul officials fear that stormy reactions to the Japanese lawmakers’ trip to Ulleung Island would only undermine its practical ownership of Dokdo. They have sought to keep a low-key stance on the issue.