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.The Tokto issue is one that, for a variety of reasons (including many not of South Korea's own making), will simply not go away until either Japan or South Korea (or North Korea) drops their claim or at least stops pushing it.
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.
I am completely in support of the ROK claim to the Tokto Islets (known in Japan as Takeshima and sometimes internationally as Liancourt Rocks) ranging from the historical to the political to the practical*, but in 2005 I complained about the shrill response of Korean leaders to incidents in Japan that had been meant to provoke and should instead have been met with a low-key, ho-hum reply.
No finger-chopping, screaming, claiming Tsushima, etc., will do any good either for the collective Korean psyche or for Korea's position on the issue. In fact, it tends to erode the positive impression Korea™ has cultivated over the past few years.
What works — and this is what I've been saying all along — is acting from a position of strength. Simply put, South Korea firmly has absolute control over the islands and the surrounding territorial waters and it should simply demonstrate that whenever Japan gets uppity with their anachronistic, ahistoric, and politically ill-advised claim.
I advised that South Korea should allow limited tours to the islets, and that's what happened. I have suggested (and it's under consideration) declaring all of Ullŭng-gun County (of which Tokto is a part and which includes all of Ullǔngdo Island) a national park.
And now President Lee Myungbak's visit to Tokto is another example of this. This is something that no Japanese prime minister can do, and it underscores the futility and pettiness of Tokyo's ongoing claim.
Good on you, Mr Lee. But be prepared for at least a little blowback: Tokyo has to do something to appease their political rightists and when they can't do anything in kind then they might be a little desperate.