South Korea's Lee visits disputed islands, Japan recalls envoy
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak paid a surprise visit Friday to islands at the centre of a decades-long territorial dispute with Japan, which recalled its ambassador from Seoul in protest.
Lee was making the first-ever visit by a South Korean president to the rocky volcanic outcrops in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), roughly midway between South Korea and its former colonial ruler Japan.
Disregarding Tokyo's warnings that the visit would strain already prickly relations, Lee toured the main island and shook hands with coastguards as a South Korean flag fluttered in the breeze.
"Dokdo is indeed our territory and a place worth staking our lives to defend. Let's make sure to safeguard it with pride," pool reports quoted him as saying.
TV footage showed him posing for a photo in front of a rock painted with the slogan "ROK (South Korean) territory".
The South has stationed a small coastguard detachment since 1954 on the islands known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan.
Japan reacted angrily, recalling its envoy indefinitely and calling in Seoul's ambassador to Tokyo to receive a strong protest.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said the trip was "extremely deplorable".
Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba upbraided his South Korean counterpart by phone and said the visit "would have a major negative impact on our people's sentiment".
"Our side has no choice but to take proper measures in response," he said.
The trip was made just before the men's bronze medal Olympic soccer match between Japan and South Korea, and days before the August 15 anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender, which ended its 35-year rule over Korea.
Lee's conservative party faces a presidential election in December, although he himself is constitutionally barred from a second term.
Many older Koreans have bitter memories of Japan's brutal 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.
South Korea last week summoned a senior Japanese diplomat to 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.
Among other issues, Seoul is irked at Tokyo's refusal to compensate elderly Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops in World War II.
In June the South shelved the signing of a military information-sharing agreement with Japan following Korean protests.
One analyst said Lee's 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 South Korea's 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?"
With just over six months till his term ends, Lee's popularity has slumped amid corruption scandals allegedly involving his brother and close aides.
Another analyst said the president's decision to visit Dokdo was right but it came too late in his term. "This needs to be more than a mere effort to influence opinion polls," said Lee Junhan, a professor at Incheon University.
Dokdo covers a total 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.
The South's military increased air and sea patrols around Dokdo before Lee's visit, according to a military official quoted by Yonhap news agency.