President Lee Myung-bak paid an unprecedented visit to Dokdo near Ulleung Island in the East Sea, Friday, becoming the first South Korean leader to set foot on the country’s easternmost islets.
His rare trip angered Japan, which has persistently insisted that the islets are part of its territory. Japan summoned Ambassador to Japan Shin Kak-soo and recalled its ambassador to Korea Masashi Muto, saying Seoul-Tokyo relations would worsen.
During the Dokdo trip, Lee was accompanied by Culture Minister Choe Kwang-shik, Minister of Environment Yoo Young-sook and two best-selling fiction authors, Yi Mun-yol and Kim Ju-young.
After leaving Cheong Wa Dae, he arrived on Ulleung, South Gyeongsang Province in the afternoon. Lee met the islanders to discuss several issues.
He called for sustainable development of the island, home to some 10,000 residents.
After this, he headed to Dokdo located 87.4 kilometers east of Ulleung.
Seoul had maintained so-called quiet diplomacy over Japanese claims, saying if the islets were viewed as disputed territory, this could endanger South Korea’s practical ownership of them.
Lee’s visit signaled the end of Seoul’s decades-long pursuit of this approach.
Asking for anonymity, a Cheong Wa Dae official told reporters that Lee had long wanted to travel to the islets as they are designated as natural monuments.
The official dismissed any speculation that the trip was a calculated move, saying the Korean leader was simply touring a part of the country.
From the Japanese standpoint, Lee is the second foreign leader to set foot on what it calls disputed territories.
In November 2010, then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev visited the disputed Kuril Islands.
The Russian leader’s visit to the territory angered Japan, putting Moscow’s ties with Tokyo to the test.
Japan recalled its ambassador to Russia and summoned the Russian ambassador in protest. Then Prime Minister Naoto Kan regretted the Russian leader’s unprecedented visit.
President Lee made the rare trip weeks before the military will conduct defense drills in waters off Dokdo.
Earlier, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura protested the exercise, saying Japan would not accept it.
The diplomatic row over the islets shows no signs of relenting.
The territorial dispute has resurfaced as Japan stated Dokdo was part of its territory in its annual defense posture guidelines and textbooks.
On Thursday, Japan belatedly protested South Korea’s diplomatic policy book published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in June over its description of the islets as South Korean. Seoul dismissed it, reiterating it owns Dokdo.
Meanwhile, political parties revealed mixed reactions to Lee’s visit. In a statement, the ruling Saenuri Party made positive comments saying the President exhibited his determination to protect what belonged to the nation.
The main opposition Democratic United Party, however, tried to downplay the trip, calling it a politically calculated event to counter criticism that the government was not tough enough concerning Japan’s claims.