S Korea prez visits disputed islands

Angry Japan recalls ambassador from Seoul

South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak paid a surprise visit on 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 our territory. We must keep it under close guard,” 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. “I told him I have no understanding of why President Lee visited the islands at this time,” said Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, who had warned earlier in the day that a visit “would have a great impact” on relations.

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.

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