Seoul: South Korea’s prime minister made a historic visit Tuesday, 29 July, to a group of rocky islets controlled by Seoul but claimed also by Tokyo, as his administration sought to cement its hold over them.
Han Seung-Soo, accompanied by two other cabinet ministers, arrived at the rugged, treeless islets midway between South Korea and Japan shortly before noon, officials at his office said.
He is the highest-ranking South Korean official to visit the tiny islands, which came with Seoul feeling under mounting pressure in a territorial dispute that has flared up again with Tokyo’s renewed claims.
Han met a police contingent stationed in the islets and unveiled a monument inscribed with “Dokdo belongs to South Korean territory,” his aides said.
The islands are called Dokdo by South Koreans and Takeshima in Japan.
South Korean prime minister Han Seung-soo (C) and other officials celebrate after they installed a sign stone on the small cluster of islands, called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese. The long-burning dispute over the islets erupted again this month after an official school history guide in Japan referred to the islands as Japanese territory, triggering angry demonstrations in Seoul and an official protest from South Korea. Photo: Reuters
Han told his cabinet before the trip that he wanted to “firmly make sure that Dokdo has historically belonged to South Korean territory,” a spokesman said.
The previous highest-ranking official to visit was the communications minister in 2005.
Han called it “very regrettable” that the United States has re-categorized the islets, a move seen here as a diplomatic setback, the spokesman said.
Officials said Monday that President Lee Myung-Bak was “outraged” to learn the US Board on Geographic Names had modified its classification of the islets from a territory of South Korea to one with “undesignated sovereignty.”
They said Lee ordered a probe to see if Seoul’s embassy in Washington and its ambassador should be held responsible for possible “negligence of duty” in handling the case.
Seoul has promised to do its “utmost” to reverse the US decision, and the foreign ministry has formed a task force headed by a vice minister to tackle the issue and promote Dokdo.
South Korea also confirmed plans to hold two major military exercises near the islets this year, sparking protests from Japan. The defence ministry said the first one is due Wednesday.
The navy said in a statement that six ships, including a 3,000-tonne destroyer backed up by P-3C reconnaissance aircraft and LYNX anti-submarine helicopters, would team up with F-15Ks and two coast guard ships.
“The navy is strengthening the military willingness to defend Dokdo and checking its perfect defence readiness through this exercise,” the Navy said.
The annual military drills had been held in a low-key or closed manner before but were made public this year.
Seoul stations a small unit of maritime police in the islands and plans to make them habitable for civilians.
The dispute originates in Japan’s 20th century imperial expansion and its colonisation of the Korean peninsula.
Japan claimed the islands in 1905 after winning a war with Russia. It went on to annex the entire Korean peninsula from 1910 until its defeat in 1945 at the end of World War II.