SEOUL--South Korean President Lee Myung-bak felt so backed into a corner by Japan's intransigence on the wartime sex slave issue that he played the only card he had left in his hand.
That card was his surprise visit to the disputed Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan on Aug. 10, a development that threw bilateral relations into a tailspin.
As head of a lameduck administration, Lee felt a desperate need to make a political statement that just might jolt Japan out of its stupor.
"A major power like Japan can settle (the 'comfort women' issue) if only it makes up its mind to do so," a spokesman for the presidential office quoted Lee as saying during a luncheon with National Assembly speaker Kang Chang-hee and other guests on Aug. 13.
"But Japan has been showing a negative attitude for reasons of domestic politics," he went on. "So I decided I had to take action that demonstrated my resolve."
Lee has said previously that he spoke at length with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda during summit talks in Kyoto last December, trying to persuade him of the need to resolve the "comfort women" issue.
Lee said he had been gearing up to make the visit to Takeshima, called Dokdo in Korean, for the past three years.
The islets are administered by South Korea and claimed by Japan.
"I couldn't go there last year because of the weather," he was quoted as saying.
According to Lee's spokesman, the president said, "Japan's clout in the international community is no longer what it was before."
Tokyo, incensed by Lee's visit, said it was considering filing a complaint with the International Court of Justice. It also hinted that other measures were being studied to protest Lee's action.
Some government departments in Seoul, not least in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, are trying to backpedal furiously in the hope the situation will cool off sooner rather than later.
A South Korean government source said Seoul will withdraw its plan to build a marine science research base off Takeshima.
"We will discontinue the plan unless Japan sends patrol vessels or takes other physical actions," the source said.
For its part, Seoul has no intention of letting the Takeshima dispute be heard before the ICJ, even if Japan goes ahead and files a complaint. Some experts in South Korea, however, say Seoul's continued refusal to have the case heard could put it at a disadvantage in the long run.
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