Lee Myung-bak makes historic visit to Dokdo

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Lee Myung-bak makes historic visit to Dokdo

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President Lee Myung-bak today made a landmark visit to Dokdo, Korea’s easternmost islets—a symbolic trip no other president has made.

The president’s unprecedented trip to the islets, located 87.4 kilometers (54 miles) southeast of Ulleung Island, is considered an effort to send a message to reaffirm Korea’s sovereignty over its easternmost territory, over which Japan has frequently claimed control.

Throughout Lee’s trip, the Korean military was on high alert. The Air Force’s F-15Ks and KF-16 fighter jets and the Navy’s ships and submarines reinforced their patrols.

According to the Blue House sources, Lee first went to Ulleung Island and then went to Dokdo this afternoon. Earlier in the morning, the presidential office said Lee would visit the islets if the weather permits.

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While the Blue House explained that Lee’s Dokdo visit was part of his trip to Ulleung Island with the purpose of stressing the importance of environmental preservation, it was the strongest political and diplomatic action to date to counter Japan’s latest series of territorial claims.

Last week, Japan published its 2012 defense white paper and reiterated its claim, calling the islets by its Japanese name Takeshima. Seoul demanded Tokyo to immediately correct it.

Tokyo also made its first-ever complaint to Seoul on Wednesday for stating Dokdo as Korea’s territory in Korea’s diplomatic white paper. Seoul dismissed the complaint out of hand.

Lee’s visit to Dokdo also took place at a sensitive time. Next week, Korea celebrates its liberation from Japan’s colonial rule on Independence Day on Aug. 15.

Since the Republic of Korea was established in 1948, it was the first time a Korean president visited Dokdo. Prime Minister Han Seung-soo, who visited the islets in July 2008, was the highest-ranked government official ever to make the trip.

The recent series of events surrounding Dokdo quickly strained diplomatic ties between the two countries, which have already soured due to issues related to Japan’s wartime crimes such as conscription of laborers and sex slavery of Korean women. The Japanese government yesterday barked angrily at Lee’s surprise visit to Dokdo.

"If the visit is realized, it would go against our country's position and so we strongly urge its cancelation," Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told journalists after the Korean media reported about Lee’s travel plan earlier today. "We must respond to it firmly."

He was also quoted as telling Japanese media that Tokyo will consider recalling its ambassador to Seoul, Masatoshi Muto, in protest.

Japanese Transportation Minister Yuichiro Hata also said today he will pay a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on Wednesday when Japan commemorates its 67th anniversary of World War II surrender. Because the shrine for the Japanese war dead is where 14 Class-A war criminals were interred, any visit to Yasukuni by high-profile politicians and government officials has always been a controversial issue.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, however, said today that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his cabinet members would not officially visit the shrine this year.

The Japanese media also reported today that Seoul informed Tokyo ahead of Lee’s trip, but the Blue House refuted it.

“Dokdo is an undeniable Korean territory based on history and under international law,” a senior Blue House official said. “The Korean president is going to Korean territory.”

As diplomatic tensions escalated between Korea and Japan, the United States urged its allies to maintain smooth relations. “We encourage good relations between both of our allies,” said Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesman of the U.S. State Department, at the press briefing.

Korea’s ruling and opposition parties gave mixed reactions to Lee’s Dokdo visit. While the ruling Saenuri Party called it “a meaningful demonstration of Korea’s will to defend its territory,” the largest opposition Democratic United Party said efforts to gain the Japanese government’s apology and compensation for its inhumane wartime crimes should have come first.

The minority opposition Unified Progressive Party attacked Lee for having a “political show” at the end of his presidency while he failed to respond properly to Japan’s claims through his term.


By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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