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Row escalating over island visit by Japan lawmakers

Seoul plans to slap entry ban on four


A diplomatic conflict between South Korea and Japan is escalating as four Japanese lawmakers are pushing ahead with their plan to visit Ulleung Island, while Seoul plans to ban their entry into the country.

Despite repeated warnings, the lawmakers of Japan’s main opposition Liberal Democratic Party have stuck to their plan to visit the island, the closest they can get to South Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo over which Japan has long made territorial claims.

Seoul officials and diplomatic experts here believe that their planned visit to the island is aimed at attracting international attention to their contentious sovereignty claims and gaining support from the conservative political circles in Japan.

According to Japanese news reports, the LDP leadership, which was leaning toward the cancellation of their legislators’ visit to the island, has decided to allow them to proceed with their “personal” visit ― not an official one organized by the party.

The Tokyo government also appears passive in persuading them to cancel their plan despite the possibility of South Korean citizens angrily responding to their presence here. It has already requested that Seoul help guarantee the safety of the lawmakers in Korea.

The lawmakers plan to depart for Seoul on Monday next week, visit the island the next day and return to Japan on Thursday.

The Seoul government is bracing for their visit. It plans to bar them from entering the country at Gimpo International Airport. Regarding this, the Foreign and Justice Ministries have already finished their discussions.

Seoul plans to impose the entry ban on them ostensibly to ensure their safety as there could be major rallies by civic groups here to condemn their visit to the island.

Under the local law, the justice minister can bar a foreigner from entering the country when there are concerns that he or she could undermine national interests and the safety of the public.

Later in the day, Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Jae-shin called in Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Masatoshi Muto and notified him that the entry of the four lawmakers would be rejected at the Seoul airport.

In a meeting with Korean reporters, a senior government official stressed that the Japanese lawmakers’ visit is “undesirable” in terms of bilateral relations.

“Their plan to visit Uleung Island seriously hurt bilateral ties and public sentiment here. That has also worsened our ties so much that we cannot carry out things that we have pursued to enhance our relations,” he said.

“This will negatively affect bilateral economic and security cooperation in the region. This will never help our relations further develop, and therefore, we want them to exercise restraint.”

He also said the news reports that the LDP and the Japanese parliament approved their visit to the island were “groundless.”

In a media interview, Sindo Yoshitaka, one of the four lawmakers, said that he would not give up his plan to visit the island.

“At this point in time, I don’t think of exercising self-restraint or postponing the visit. We could give a wrong message to South Korea that Japan would back down when there is a commotion,” he said.

Meanwhile, some experts expressed concern that South Korea’s “too sensitive” response to their visit could result in a diplomatic mishap ― helping them complete their alleged mission of drawing international attention and highlighting Japan’s territorial claims over it.

Tokyo has for years laid territorial claims over the South Korean volcanic islets ― located about 90 kilometers east of Ulleung Island ― often proving 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. Seoul has had Coast Guard officers stationed in Dokdo since 1954. Two citizens ― a fisherman and his wife ― live on the islets.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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