In this June 16, 2011 file photo, islands called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese are observed during a Korean Air Airbus A380 demonstration flight. An official working for a South Korean governor who traveled with President Lee Myung-bak says the officials visited the islets on Friday. Seoul says Lee's visit to the islands is the first by a South Korean leader. Tokyo has already said the visit will hurt ties. (AP/Lee Jin-man)
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo on Friday in an apparent bid to reassert the country’s control over the windswept outcrops that Japan has claimed for decades.
Lee landed on Dokdo in the East Sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan after stopping at nearby Ulleungdo to meet residents there, a senior presidential official said.
He is the first Korean president to visit the islets. It comes days before the 67th anniversary of Liberation Day on Wednesday, which celebrates Korea’s independence from Japan’s colonial rule from 1910-45.
Cheong Wa Dae said the plan was aimed at stressing the conservation of the ecologically important islands, cautioning against “overanalyzing”.
“There should be nothing abnormal in a national leader’s visit to a place that is our territory,” an official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Nonetheless, the watershed trip infuriated Tokyo, whose increasingly strident territorial claim has often soured ties between the two Asian powers.
Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba on Friday morning urged the Korean government to call off the outing. The archipelago country reportedly plans to summon Muto Masatoshi, its ambassador to Seoul.
Transport Minister Yuichiro Hata declared that he will visit the Yasukuni shrine on August 15, which marks Tokyo’s surrender that ended World War II in 1945. The place honors war dead including the most serious convicted war criminals.
“If [Lee’s] visit is made, it would run counter our country’s stance. We strongly urge its cancellation,” Genba told reporters in Tokyo, adding it would “definitely have a large impact” on bilateral relations.
Tokyo has claimed ownership over Dokdo, which it calls Takeshima, via educational guidelines and government papers. Seoul has maintained control since 1953 with a small batch of maritime police officers and plans to expand research in the area.
The set of small volcanic outcroppings lie in rich fishing grounds believed to have large natural gas reserves and other resources buried beneath them.