AFP News –
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak landed Friday on remote islands at the heart of a territorial dispute with Japan, according to news reports, on an unprecedented visit which stirred anger in Tokyo.
Jiji Press, quoting a Japanese foreign ministry official, said Lee had arrived at the rocky volcanic outcrops in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.
It would be the first-ever visit by a South Korean president to the islands, which have been disputed for decades between Seoul and former colonial ruler Tokyo.
The South has stationed a small coastguard detachment on them since 1954.
A Seoul presidential spokeswoman could not confirm whether Lee had arrived at Dokdo. He was visiting South Korea’s Ulleung island earlier Friday and was scheduled to fly by helicopter to nearby Dokdo if weather permitted.
In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said any such visit “would have a great impact on Japan-South Korea relations” and Japan would “have to respond firmly”.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura described the planned trip as “extremely regrettable” at a time when Tokyo was seeking “future-oriented” relations with Seoul.
“I want South Korea to maintain self-restraint,” Fujimura said.
Lee’s trip would come just days before the August 15 anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, which ended its 35-year rule over Korea.
South Korea last week summoned a senior Japanese diplomat to strongly protest his country’s renewed claim to the islands in its latest defence white paper.
Earlier in July it was Tokyo’s turn to protest when a South Korean rammed his truck into the main gate of Japan’s embassy in Seoul. He was reacting to an earlier demonstration in the city by a rightwing Japanese activist.
South Korea has announced it will stage a regular military exercise near the islands in mid-August, reportedly involving some 10 warships, plus F-15K fighter jets and other weaponry.
The South’s military increased patrols by warplanes and naval ships around Dokdo before Lee’s visit, according to a military official quoted by Yonhap news agency.
Many older Koreans have bitter memories of Japan’s brutal colonial rule. Historical disputes such as Dokdo still mar their relationship, despite close economic ties and a shared concern at North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes.
Seoul is also irked at Tokyo’s refusal to compensate elderly Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during World War II.
In June Seoul at the last minute shelved the signing of a military information sharing agreement with Japan following Korean protests.
One South Korean political analyst said Lee’s planned trip was an over-reaction to diplomatic strains and should have been considered more thoroughly.
Strategically, the visit to Dokdo would be one of the strongest actions the president could take, said Jin Chang-Soo of the Sejong Institute think-tank.
“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 AFP.
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?”
Dokdo is composed of two main islets and 35 smaller rocks and covers a land area of 18.7 hectares (46.3 acres). Apart from the coastguards there are two civilian residents, an elderly man and his wife.
It is sited amid rich fishing grounds and Seoul officials say the seabed contains reserves of gas hydrates, although the amount is still unclear.