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South Korea seeks to ban Japanese lawmakers from visiting its territory

South Korea said Thursday it will ban two Japanese lawmakers from visiting an island near the country’s easternmost islets of Dokdo, a move that has been rekindling criticism over Tokyo’s longstanding territorial claims.

Four lawmakers of Japan’s opposition Liberal Democratic Party said last week they plan to visit the island Ulleungdo on Aug. 1 to see for themselves “how South Koreans feel” about the issue that has been straining ties between the two neighboring countries for six decades.

While two of the four lawmakers called off their visit upon Seoul’s request, the remaining two have said they will stick to the plan, according to an official at Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.

“We will try to persuade them to change their minds until the last moment. If they press ahead with the trip, we will have no other choice but to enforce an entry ban upon them,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.

Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae said his government will “take the necessary measures” to stop the lawmakers from entering the island. He did not elaborate.

Tokyo has for years laid territorial claims over the South Korean volcanic islets ― located about 90 kilometers east of Ulleungdo ― often providing a stumbling block to mending ties with Korea, which gained independence in 1945 from its 1910-45 colonial rule.

Dokdo, called Takeshima by the Japanese, is a group of small islets that lie in rich fishing grounds in the East Sea which also is expected to contain large gas deposits.

Dismissing Tokyo’s claim as nonsense as South Korea reclaimed sovereignty over the mainland as well as several islands around the peninsula after independence, Seoul has had Coast Guard officers stationed in Dokdo since 1954. Two citizens ― a fisherman and his wife ― live on the islets.

Meanwhile, the Korea Liberation Association of independence activists and their descendants held a rally outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, demanding the Tokyo lawmakers drop their plan immediately.

Braving the heavy rain, some 200 association members, including its chairman Park Yu-chul, gathered outside the embassy to deliver a statement signed by some 6,000 members.

“We are astonished by the Japanese lawmakers’ arrogant attitude,” the statement said, pressing the Japanese government and the Liberal Democratic Party to “immediately drop the plan” to visit Ulleungdo.

“Japan should halt its move to turn Dokdo into a disputed territory,” it went on. “Nothing can change the fact that Dokdo belongs to Korea.”

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak had warned the Japanese lawmakers against visiting the island on Wednesday, saying his country could not guarantee their safety as anger persists among the people here.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said it has repeatedly asked the lawmakers to cancel their planned trip and also requested help from the Tokyo government in changing their minds.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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