SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a surprise visit Friday to islets at the center of a long-running territorial dispute with Japan, ignoring warnings from Tokyo that it would worsen the neighbors’ already strained relations.
Lee’s trip to the rocky, largely uninhabited outcroppings in fish-rich waters between the countries was the first by a South Korean president, officials in his office said. Lee also briefly visited nearby Ulleung Island, which is not part of the territorial dispute.
The trip to the islets — called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese — comes as Lee’s conservative party jockeys for votes ahead of hotly contested December presidential elections. Lee, whose popularity has steadily dropped, is in the last year of his five-year presidency and cannot run for re-election.
The visit also comes on the eve of the men’s bronze medal Olympic soccer match between Japan and South Korea and ahead of South Korea’s commemoration Wednesday of the peninsula’s independence in 1945 from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule.
South Korea stations a small contingent of police officers on the disputed islets in a show of control, but Japan maintains that the rocks are its territory. Tokyo renewed the claim last month in an annual defense report.
Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba strongly protested the visit.
“It is incomprehensible why he would make this trip at this time,” Genba said.
Japan’s ambassador to South Korea was to be brought back to Japan in protest, and officials called Seoul’s representative in Tokyo to the Foreign Ministry to hear Japan’s complaints.
The outcroppings have long been a source of discord, even though the two countries are both U.S. allies, share vibrant trade and tourism ties and are partners in diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its long-range missile and nuclear arms programs.
Historical and territorial issues, however, plague the relationship. Many people on the Korean Peninsula continue to harbor deep resentment stemming from Japan’s brutal colonization. South Korea and Japan also remain at odds over what many South Koreans say is Japan’s failure to properly address its past actions, including its World War II-era use of Korean women as sexual slaves for its soldiers.
In late June, Seoul and Tokyo put on hold an intelligence sharing pact seen as a breakthrough in their relations after a political outcry in South Korea.
South Korean activists last year placed a statue of a girl representing victims of Japanese sexual slavery in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Japanese officials have apologized in the past, but Tokyo has refused repeated demands from individuals for reparations, saying the matter was solved by international peace treaties.
U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell expressed hope for good relations between the two key U.S. allies after being asked about reports that Lee was planning to visit the disputed islets.
Last year, Seoul banned three conservative Japanese lawmakers from entering South Korea after they arrived at a Seoul airport with announced plans to travel near the islets.