Lee's visit to Takeshima threatens Japan-S. Korea ties
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak went ahead with a visit to the Takeshima islands in the Sea of Japan on Friday. The islets are part of Japan's sovereign territory but illegally occupied by South Korea.
If a head of state visits an area of land whose sovereignty is also claimed by another country, the act can be considered provocative, as it blatantly disregards the other nation. It is inevitable that Lee's visit will erode the trust Japan and South Korea have built until now and cool bilateral relations.
Soon after assuming the presidency, Lee focused on cultivating mature relations with Japan. He maintained a pragmatic, forward-looking stance and was dedicated to strengthening ties with his neighbor.
However, Lee spoiled his progressive reputation when he brought up the so-called comfort women issue again during talks with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in December last year. We cannot help but feel more disappointment over the South Korean president's latest indiscretion.
Japan should take firm stance
As territorial issues pertain to state sovereignty, the government should not treat Lee's visit lightly.
Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba summoned the South Korean ambassador to Japan to file a complaint on the matter and temporarily recalled Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Masatoshi Muto. He also made clear the government's intention to refer the Takeshima issue to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. These were natural diplomatic countermoves.
Noda expressed his strong disapproval of Lee's visit, describing it as "totally unacceptable" and saying the government would "resolutely respond" to the incident.
The question remains as to how effective the government's response can really be.
The Takeshima islets, known as Dokdo in South Korea, are a symbol of independence and patriotism for South Koreans. However, the country's past presidents--even Lee's predecessor Roh Moo Hyun, who was known for having made many anti-Japan remarks--did not visit the disputed islands out of consideration for Japan and to prevent bilateral relations from deteriorating.
Lee has now crossed the line. The president, in an apparent bid to regain popularity in his last days of presidency, pulled out the anti-Japan card. Lee's leadership has come into question recently as his brother and various close aides have been arrested or resigned from their posts over corruption and other scandals.
South Korea's ruling camp might have felt pressured to show hostility toward Japan because opposition parties have been displaying a more confrontational stance against the nation as South Korea's presidential election approaches in December.
Govt's leniency also to blame
Japan is also indirectly responsible for the incident. The Democratic Party of Japan-led government has been lenient in its diplomatic approach toward Russia over the disputed northern territories.
The government was unable to prevent former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev from visiting Kunashiri Island, one of the four islets claimed by Japan, two years ago. It also failed to prevent his subsequent visit to the island in July after he became prime minister.
The government said it would take "appropriate steps" when Medvedev first visited the island. However, its later stance toward the issue failed to encourage Russia to exercise restraint.
It is only natural South Korea has exploited the fact that Japan's diplomatic relations with the United States and China have been faltering.
It is also concerning that South Korea has been conducting military exercises near Takeshima in recent years. The government should monitor such developments to ensure they do not lead to the acceleration of the islands' position as a strategic military base, while also calling on Seoul to refrain from further provocations.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 12, 2012)