Japan-South Korea relations appear to have reached their nadir with the unprecedented visit of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to the disputed Dokdo islets last week. Lee’s visit represents a dramatic escalation in the territorial dispute with Japan, which also claims sovereignty over the atoll, known in Japan as Takeshima. The visit marks the first time a South Korean head of state has made an official visit, a redline that had not been breached up until this point in order to avoid provoking a diplomatic crisis with Japan.
Lee toured the atoll’s largest island, met with coast guard officials stationed there and insisted that the territory remains an integral part of South Korea. While addressing a gathering of police and coast guard officials, Lee declared, “Dokdo is indeed our territory and a place worth staking our lives to defend. Let's make sure to safeguard [the islets] with pride."
The row over the Dokdo islets has been a sticking point between the two countries since the conclusion of World War II. South Korea has occupied the rocky atoll since 1954 and has consistently repudiated Tokyo’s claims to the territory. Both sides point to historical maps and treaties to prove the legitimacy of their claims. South Korea insists that Dokdo has been part of Korea since the 6th century, while Japan points to maps from the 18th century showing the rocks as part of Japanese territory. Compounding this dispute is a conflict over the naming of the sea that surrounds Dokdo and separates Japan from the Korean Peninsula -- Seoul refers to it as the East Sea, while Tokyo labels it the Sea of Japan.