South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Aug. 10 visited the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan claimed by both Japan and South Korea.
Lee became the first South Korean head of state to make a trip to Takeshima, although a South Korean prime minister once visited the disputed territory.
By traveling to the islands, Lee seriously damaged his country's relations with Japan, which he once called the "ally that is closest (to South Korea)." His action, coming as it did from a responsible politician, is very surprising.
The Japanese government filed a strong protest against Lee's move and recalled its ambassador to South Korea.
Bilateral ties are bound to get chilly.
The responsibility to calm the situation rests primarily with Lee.
A former businessman known as a political pragmatist, Lee pledged to build a "future-oriented" relationship between South Korea and Japan immediately after he took office in 2008.
Relations had been in good shape in recent years despite a smoldering conflict over the Takeshima islands.
But tensions have grown markedly between Tokyo and Seoul over the past year or so over the long-standing issue of "comfort women," who were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II.
During his meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in December, Lee urged Noda to take effective steps to resolve the issue. Their meeting took place after a South Korean constitutional court declared, "It is illegal for the South Korean government to fail to negotiate with Japan on the issue of individual persons' rights to claim (compensation)."
Noda responded to Lee's call by reiterating Japan's official position that the issue had already been "legally resolved."
Noda also demanded that a statue erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul as a monument to South Korean comfort women be removed.
But Lee's visit to the islands appear to have been motivated more by domestic political concerns than by the Takeshima dispute or any other diplomatic issue.
Just as Lee began preparing for the final months of his presidential term, set to end in February, his elder brother and some close aides were arrested in scandals. There is also growing discontent among South Koreans over a widening gap in incomes.
The Lee administration has already become a lame duck.
Lee apparently took a hard-line stance on the territorial dispute as a political gesture prior to the Aug. 15 Gwangbokjeol (Restoration of Light Day), which celebrates the liberation of Korea from Japan's colonial rule at the end of World War II.
But even if Lee's act rouses patriotic fervor among South Koreans temporarily, it will do nothing to solve their livelihood problems.
The action will not help lift the administration's political momentum, either.
Rather, Lee's visit to the islands will draw international attention to the fact that there is an unresolved territorial dispute over the islands between the two countries.
Historically, national leaders in political trouble at home have often made moves to distract the people's attention from domestic affairs to foreign policy issues.
For such leaders, territorial disputes, which tend to whip up nationalism, are convenient tools.
But the most important duty of political leaders is to eliminate potential sources of international conflict.
Lee should be criticized for doing the exact opposite of what a responsible national leader should do.
It is also hard to overlook the incompetence of Japanese political leaders who can do nothing to solve such important diplomatic issues with the nation's neighbors.
All the Japanese political parties should make level-headed efforts to deal with the situation without trying to use it as a partisan tool to score political points
Grassroots exchanges between the two countries are at historical highs. Concerts by South Korean pop stars in Tokyo attract tens of thousands of Japanese fans. In popular shopping districts in Seoul, store clerks greet Japanese tourists with words of welcome in Japanese.
Politicians of both countries should not be allowed to take any action to reverse this trend.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 11
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