Isle row with Seoul adds to Tokyo’s foreign policy woes


South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s unprecedented visit to a small group of disputed islands situated between his country and Japan is exacerbating Tokyo’s diplomatic woes amid growing territorial challenges from China and Russia.

Lee visited the islands, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, on Friday, defying Japanese calls for restraint.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who is busy dealing with domestic affairs, was totally powerless to head off Lee’s visit, which some have called a blatant attempt to bolster sovereignty claims and others have called a bid to save face after canceling the secretive signing of a controversial military pact with Japan.

The visit threatens to hamper Japan’s ties with South Korea and destabilize their tripartite alliance with Washington for denuclearizing North Korea.

In response to Lee’s visit, Tokyo has started discussions on referring the dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which would require consent from South Korea.

“South Korea professes to be a ‘Global Korea,’ ” Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba says. “So, it is natural that the country will accept (its submission to the international court).”

Japan has a judge on the ICJ but it is unclear whether he would pose a conflict in the case.

The rhetoric is unlikely to improve matters. Noda’s team doesn’t seem to have a clue on how to break the deadlock.

Japan was totally unaware of Lee’s plans until early Thursday afternoon, just before a no-confidence motion against Noda’s Cabinet was voted down in the House of Representatives, according to a government official.

Lee chose to visit the islands on Friday in an apparent effort to take advantage of the tense political situation in Japan, a source close to Noda said.

China and Russia are also playing hardball with Japan. Beijing has repeatedly sent fishery surveillance ships into Japanese waters near the Senkaku Islands after Noda on July 7 announced a plan to purchase some of the East China Sea islands, also claimed by China, from their private Japanese owners.

Also in early July, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri, one of four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that Japan has sought for decades to take back since losing them near the end of the war.

At a meeting with his Russian counterpart on July 28, Genba protested Medvedev’s visit. But Moscow flatly refused to accept the protest.

The Liberal Democratic Party is becoming even more critical of the Democratic Party of Japan-led government following a series of flops on the diplomatic front.

“The current administration makes light of security issues,” said former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba.

The LDP is considering submitting a censure motion against Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, who said Lee made the trip to the islands for “domestic” political reasons.

On the horizon is another potential source of regional friction.

Land minister Yuichiro Hata and National Public Safety Commission Chairman Jin Matsubara said they hope to visit Yasukuni Shrine to honor the war dead on Wednesday, the 67th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.

Their visits are likely to anger China and South Korea, which were invaded by Japan, because the Shinto shrine is a key symbol of Japan’s wartime militarism. The shrine honors Class-A war criminals among the war dead.