As far as Japan is concerned, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak crossed the line, and in doing so threw relations with Japan into a tailspin.
In a nutshell, Lee broke an unwritten understanding when he landed Aug. 10 on one of the disputed Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan to bolster South Korea's claim of sovereignty.
Former presidents of South Korea had refrained from making such visits, thereby keeping relations with Japan cordial.
Tokyo lodged a strong protest and recalled its ambassador to South Korea, Masatoshi Muto, to express its displeasure over a visit that came like a bolt out of the blue.
The development also poses a problem for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan headed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, which is also battling territorial claims with China and Russia.
The Takeshima islets are called Dokdo in Korean. The rocky outcrops lie 157 kilometers northwest of Japan's Oki island chain.
In 1905, Japan announced it was incorporating Takeshima as part of its territory, prompting Shimane Prefecture to issue a notification that the islands were under its jurisdiction.
In 1952, South Korean President Syngman Rhee asserted that the islands were under his country's control with the so-called Syngman Rhee Line serving as a boundary in the open sea. Since 1954, South Korea has stationed military personnel on the islands on a permanent basis, putting them effectively under its control.
Lee first went to Ulleungdo island, about 90 kilometers west of Takeshima, before heading to the disputed territory.
On Ulleungdo, he said: "Ever since I assumed the post (of president in 2008), I had thought I would go (to Dokdo). But I had not been able to do so."
Lee's political grandstanding is at odds with his oft-stated remarks that South Korea should seek future-oriented relations with Japan.
An aide noted that Lee previously ripped out any criticisms of Japan that appeared in speeches written for him.
According to a high-ranking official of the South Korean presidential office, Lee suddenly decided on the morning of Aug. 9 that he would visit Takeshima the following day.
"He did not solicit any opinions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade," the official said.
There is speculation that Lee decided to make the visit in protest over a continuing lack of progress on the "comfort women" issue, which has been an open thorn in relations with Japan and the cause of a rupture in summit talks between the two countries late last year.
The issue concerns women who were forced to provide sex for Imperial Japanese Army soldiers during World War II.
In August 2011, the South Korean constitutional court ruled that former comfort women have a right to seek damage compensation from the Japanese government as individuals and that Seoul is acting unconstitutionally by not having diplomatic talks with Japan to help them.
The South Korean government responded by stepping up diplomatic pressure on Japan to resolve the issue.
But Japan would not budge, on grounds the issue had been "legally resolved."
An aide to Lee said: "Our president still hopes that, irrespective of legal resolutions, Japan will take measures to soften the feelings (of former comfort women). Wondering why Japan cannot do that, he has developed a growing distrust of Japan."
Another reason for Lee's decision may lie in the fact that pro-Japan officials have vanished one after another from his inner circle.
Last month, Kim Tae-hyo, a top national security aide in charge of external affairs who maintained close contacts with the Japanese government, was forced to resign over moves to enhance military cooperation with Japan. This left the Lee administration without a single aide to advise it on policies toward Japan.
This, in turn, left Lee with more aides advising on domestic political issues. One of them had been pushing Lee to visit Takeshima.
Lee clearly had domestic issues in mind when he decided to visit Takeshima. His administration has been rocked by a series of arrests of people close to him, including his elder brother who had served as chairman of the South Korea-Japan parliamentary league.
"President Lee knows that his visit to Dokdo will not lead to rise in the support rate for him. But the series of scandals no doubt were a factor in his decision as he wanted to divert the people's attention to another issue," said an indivual who previously advised Lee on policies toward Japan.
The Japanese government was caught completely off-guard by Lee's visit.
"We had never thought the president would land on Takeshima," said a high-ranking Japanese government official on the morning of Aug. 10.
Japanese officials only got an inkling of Lee's plans the previous evening.
When the Japanese Foreign Ministry got wind of it, it ordered Muto, the ambassador, along with other officials to call the Blue House presidential office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Seoul for confirmation.
Some high-ranking officials in Seoul did not even bother to take the calls. It was apparent that relations between the two countries had stalled.
Bilateral relations have been tense for the past year or so.
In March 2011, South Korea voiced its annoyance over passages in junior high school textbooks describing Takeshima as Japanese territory following official screening by the education ministry.
In December, relations deteriorated further when the comfort women issue became a major point of contention at bilateral summit talks.
In January this year, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba mentioned Takeshima in a speech on diplomatic policy. This elicited a sharp protest from South Korea.
In June, South Korea was scheduled to sign the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which stipulates a procedural framework for exchanging military information between the two countries. However, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade postponed the signing at the last minute due to domestic opposition.
Given this background, the government concluded it must adopt a more hard-line stance against South Korea.
On the afternoon on Aug. 10, Genba summoned South Korean Ambassador Shin Kak-soo to his office in Tokyo and lodged a strong protest over the visit.
Genba also recalled Muto to Japan temporarily, and told him that the government will take appropriate measures against the visit in due course.
That same evening, Genba called South Korean Foreign and Trade Minister Kim Sung-hwan and told him bluntly, "Every time a situation arises from now on will be South Korea's fault."
"Territorial issues are important," said a high-ranking Japanese government official. "But they are only a part of Japan-South Korea relations. We do not want bilateral relations to become critically bad."
That sentiment seems to be holding up. Japanese Foreign Ministry officials said they hope, in spite of Tokyo's protest, bilateral relations will not sour completely.
In the field of diplomacy, Lee's visit has come at a bad time for Noda, who is losing support among DPJ lawmakers.
Japan also is locked in a bitter dispute with China over sovereignty of the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. Noda's announcement that the government will purchase the uninhabited islands, which are held privately, incensed China.
Japan's relations with Moscow also nosedived after Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited the disputed Northern Territories off eastern Hokkaido.
Japan's relations with the United States are also in a state of flux over the deployment of Osprey transportation aircraft in Japan, which has triggered howls of local protest.
"Clearly, Lee thought he could take advantage of the situation Japan finds itself in," said an individual close to Noda.
Sadakazu Tanigaki, president of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters on Aug. 10,
"Lee has treated Japan with contempt because the DPJ-led government's basic diplomatic stances are not clear."
(This article was written by Tetsuya Hakoda in Seoul and Toru Higashioka in Tokyo.)
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