Last updated: October 5, 2012 12:41 pm

Japan protests at S Korea island visit

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Japan has issued a formal complaint after South Korea invited a group of foreign journalists to a disputed island group, in the latest sign of deteriorating diplomatic relations between the two neighbours.

Reporters from six US and European media groups, including the Financial Times, travelled to the Dokdo islands – known as Takeshima in Japan – on Thursday on a visit organised by the government.

The trip was seen in Tokyo as a new provocation, coming two months after Lee Myung-bak reignited the long-running dispute by becoming the first South Korean president to visit the islands which lie between Japan and South Korea.

Observers say high-level relations between the nations are now in the worst state for years. Last month South Korea mobilised fighter jets when a Japanese helicopter flew near the islands, according to media in Seoul.

The Japanese government – under additional pressure due to a row with China over another set of islands in the East China Sea – is facing calls from nationalist politicians to stand up for the country’s interests.

The journalists’ visit was part of a South Korean push to win international support for its claim to the islands. The government has considered placing advertisements in Japanese newspapers, and is despatching academics to explain its case to journalists in the UK, France, Germany, Hong Kong and the US.

“We were happy to keep quiet, but Japan kept making regular provocations,” said Ma Young-sam, ambassador for public diplomacy at South Korea’s foreign ministry.

The Dokdo dispute has exasperated the US which is worried that it is driving apart its most important regional allies as it seeks to build influence in east Asia.

The row reflects deeper tensions over Japan’s occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945. Japan incorporated the disputed territory in 1905, and argues that this merely confirmed its long-standing claim.

But Koreans say that this was a step towards Japanese colonisation of their mainland, which occurred five years later. South Korea has had a permanent presence on the islands since 1954.

About 45 policemen guard the islands, with each group spending two months there. On the biggest island, a passage leading from the jetty towards the police living quarters is marked with Dokdo’s only street sign.

At the top of a flight of stairs stands its sole post box and a lighthouse, next to which two officers stand guard with machine guns. Lee Gwang-seop, commander of the police garrison, said his men would be prepared to give their lives to protect the territory.

“Whenever I hear the Japanese say that Dokdo is theirs, I feel so outraged that my blood boils,” he said. “They don’t apologise or reflect on the things they have done.”

On the other island live the 71-year-old fisherman Kim Sung-do and his wife, helped by financial support from the provincial government.

“There are kinds of seafood here that I can’t find elsewhere,” Mr Kim said. “I’ve lived here for so long now. My children want me to leave the island to live with them, but I’d rather not.”

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