Japan’ s Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba speaks to reporters at the Diet in Tokyo, Friday, in response to President Lee Myungbak’s visit to Dokdo.
By Kang Hyun-kyung, Chung Min-uck
President Lee Myung-bak launched a high-stakes poker game Friday by visiting the Dokdo islets, which Japan has long claimed as part of its territory. Lee’s surprise visit to the islets to strengthen South Korea’s sovereignty claims on the territory came at cost to its ties with Japan. As expected, the neighboring nation reacted furiously to the high-level visit.
The islets are currently controlled by Seoul.
“(The visit) will have a great impact on Korea-Japan relations,” Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told reporters Friday when asked about the trip. “Japan will have to respond firmly.”
Satoshi Morimoto, Japanese Defense Minister, tried to downplay the trip, calling it a mere gesture “prompted by the needs of domestic politics in South Korea.”
Tokyo recalled its Ambassador to Korea, Masatoshi Muto, as an act of protest and also summoned Shin Kak-soo, the Korean ambassador to Japan.
In retaliation to the trip, two Japanese cabinet ministers said they were planning to visit Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni War Shrine next week, according to AFP. The two are Yuichiro Hata in charge of the land and transport ministry and Jin Matsubara, the minister charged with handling the issue of Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents.
Japanese media also criticized Lee’s visit referring to it as a political “performance” intended to remedy his lame duck status by risking Korea-Japan ties.
Politicians in Japan, who have been capitalizing on the Dokdo issue for political gain, reacted furiously against the trip as well.
Shigeru Ishiba, the former chief of Japan’s main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), said Lee’s visit will “tumble Korea-Japan relations from the fundamental” and blamed the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) for dealing lightly with their national security.
Questions are being asked about what drove President Lee to risk Seoul-Tokyo ties by going ahead with the unprecedented trip.
Analysts point to aspects of domestic politics and South Korea stepping up efforts to reinforce its sovereignty claim over the islets ahead of the Aug. 15 Liberation Day as key driving forces to Lee’s trip.
A recent Gallup poll found that President Lee’s approval rate stood at a mere 17 percent. More than six out of ten respondents disapproved of his job performance.
Lee’s ratings fell as his relatives and several aides have been arrested or questioned by prosecutors over corruption scandals.
Analysts say that the President might have wanted to turn the tide to regain public support by taking a tougher stance on the territorial dispute as the 67th anniversary of liberation approaches. South Korea was liberated from its colonial master Japan in 1945 after a 35-year-long colonial period.
Lee’s surprise Dokdo trip came amid Japan’s assertive stance on the islets and other touchy diplomatic issues, including the victims of sex slavery during World War II.
Despite Seoul’s renewed protests, Tokyo remains unchanged in its position on the islets in its recent defense and diplomatic posture in books as well as textbooks for schoolchildren.
“In Japan, the Dokdo islets dispute has been raised to the same status as that of the Kuril Islands dispute with Russia and the Senkaku Islands dispute with China,” said Jo Yang-hyeon, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA). “Dokdo is frequently used by Japanese politicians to gain popularity.”
The professor noted that a clash between Tokyo and Beijing over Senkaku in 2010 drove Japanese society to take a hard-line stance on security issues, coupled with the economic downturn.
“The Senkaku incident hardened the attitudes of politicians and government officials there so that they were unwilling to compromise on territorial issues,” added Jo.
Last week, Japan renewed its claims over Dokdo in its annual defense “White Paper” for the eighth straight year.
According to foreign ministry officials, Japan on Wednesday complained about Seoul’s diplomatic “White Paper” released earlier in June which described Dokdo as Korean territory. It was the first time Japan has protested the diplomatic report.
Meanwhile, critics here claimed the visit by the President would do a disservice to the national interest because it could motivate Japan to send the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), as it gives the impression to the outside world that the islets are a disputed territory.
The situation, if it happens, is a bad scenario for Seoul because Korea now effectively administers the islets.