Japan raised the prospect of taking a dispute with South Korea over possession of a group of islets to an international court after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited them on Friday and called them “worthy of sacrificing our lives.”
Lee’s visit to the islets known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan raised the temperature on a long-simmering territorial dispute over a place that is barely inhabitable and of unproven economic value – but that both Koreans and Japanese consider a symbol of their sovereign rights.
The territory is known as Liancourt Rocks by the US and other parties outside the dispute.
Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea after Lee’s visit. Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda said Friday that the islets belong to Japan “historically and by international law.”
On Saturday, Japan’s Foreign minister Koichiro Gemba said Tokyo might file a lawsuit over possession of the islets with the International Court of Justice. That prompted a statement in South Korea on Sunday from Lee’s ruling political party that such a move would be “imprudent.”
Lee’s visit reverberated outside the realm of officialdom as well.At the Olympics in London, South Korean fans held up “Dokdo is Korean territory” signs at a soccer game Friday where teams from the two countries contended for the bronze medal. South Korea won. A Korean player hoisted one of the signs on the field after the game, leading officials to disqualify him from attending the medal ceremony for violating rules aimed to prevent politics intruding in the games.
And in Hiroshima, Japan, on Saturday, police arrested a man for allegedly throwing a brick at the South Korean consulate. The man told police he was upset by Lee’s visit to the disputed islets.
The islets are about halfway between the two countries. Historical texts show them to have mostly been associated with Korea; however, Japan asserted control of them during its colonial expansion a century ago. South Korea has controlled them with a small police presence since 1954.
The dispute is one of several territorial quarrels between Japan and its neighbours. Japan controls a set of islands known as Senkaku, also claimed by China, where they are known as Diaoyu. Japan claims Russian-controlled islands known in Russia as the Southern Kurils; Japan calls them the Northern Territories. In late 2010, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the island closest to the Japanese mainland, sparking a protest similar to the one Japan leveled at South Korea this weekend.
The most recent sparring between Japan and South Korea appeared to be prompted by Japan’s release on July 31 of an annual defense white paper restating its claims to the territory. Tokyo’s assertion is an annual ritual that typically provokes criticism from Seoul – and did two weeks ago.
Lee raised the stakes of South Korea’s criticism with his visit. In doing so, he may have backed Japanese leaders into a corner in which their only way out is to put the claim over the rocks in the hands of an international third party – a move both South Korea and Japan have tried to avoid for fear of losing.
Japan has twice before raised possession of the disputed islets with the International Court of Justice. South Korea didn’t respond and Japan didn’t press the matter, Gemba said, in “consideration to the influence of such a lawsuit upon overall Japan-Republic of Korea relations.” He added, “I think the visit to the island by the president of Korea made such consideration unnecessary.”
Lee flew by helicopter to the islets Friday afternoon and spent a little over an hour on the one of the pair that is inhabited. He prayed at a small cemetery and drank tea with two people who live there for part of the year. Speaking to a small group of South Korea police stationed there, Lee said, “Let’s be on guard, with pride.”
He is likely to discuss the disputed rocks and Korea-Japan relations further in a speech Wednesday, the anniversary of South Korea’s liberation from Japan and the end of World War II.
The South Korean president – who has just seven months left of his five-year term – has been under pressure lately to act on some historical disputes with Japan, including one over compensation for Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Two rulings by South Korea’s constitutional court over the past year have forced the issue of compensation for victims of the Japanese colonial period.
Lee began his presidency in 2008 emphasising what he called a future-oriented relationship with Japan, and advocated low-key diplomacy on the historic issues, but he and his diplomats made little progress with Tokyo over the matters.