South Korean President Lee Myung Bak landed on Takeshima Island in the Sea of Japan, known as Dokdo in South Korea and claimed by both Japan and South Korea, by helicopter on Aug. 10. Until now, South Korean presidents, who are the head of state, had refrained from setting foot on the disputed island. Regrettably Mr. Lee broke this traditional self-restraint. It is inevitable his action will put a damper on bilateral relations.
Mr. Lee’s Takeshima visit may satisfy nationalistic sentiment in his country to some extent. But the political benefits he will get from the visit will be small. On the contrary, it could fan nationalistic sentiment in Japan. This would only harm bilateral relations. It appears that Mr. Lee did not carefully weigh the consequences of his action. He should realize that his action will make it extremely difficult and time-consuming for the two countries to put bilateral ties back on a smooth track.
In reaction to Mr. Lee’s Takeshima visit, Japan temporarily recalled its ambassador in Seoul. In this situation, it is all the more important for the governments of both Japan and South Korea to avoid emotion-driven behavior. Diplomats of both countries should carry out damage control in earnest.
Mr. Lee had sought a mature and future-oriented relationship between his country and Japan. In his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in December 2011 in Kyoto, Mr. Lee unexpectedly urged Mr. Noda to show “true courage” by giving priority to resolving the issue of Korean women who were forced to provide sex to members of the Imperial Japanese armed forces during the war years. The sex slave issue is something Japan should deal with sincerely.
Behind Mr. Lee’s move was the South Korean constitutional court’s ruling in August 2011 that it is unconstitutional for the South Korean government not to make an effort to resolve the issue of compensation for former sex slaves.
Recently his elder brother and his close aides were arrested on corruption allegations. The economic gap between the rich and poor in South Korea is wide. Mr. Lee’s approval rating has sunk below 20 percent. His term ends in February 2013. The possibility cannot be ruled out that he is trying to strengthen his political position by taking a hard stance toward Japan.
The Japanese government should not rule out the possibility that the overall deterioration of its diplomatic power, as indicated in its recent relations with the United States, Russia and China, has emboldened Mr. Lee’s to take action. The government needs to hurriedly reconstruct its diplomacy.
It also should not slacken its effort to strengthen its theoretical and historical argument for Japan’s claim over Takeshima Island and should push international public relations efforts.