The government is concerned that Japanese rightwingers will stage further stunts like the abortive mission of three lawmakers to draw attention to Tokyo's dubious claim to the Dokdo islets. Experts argue that the government needs a strategy to avoid being caught on the back foot by such headline-grabbing performances in the future.
◆ Earlier Measures Needed
The three lawmakers from Japan's conservative Liberal Democratic Party had planned to visit Ulleung Island, the nearest easily accessible island to Dokdo, but were turned back at the airport, where they staged a sit-in. This only served to draw attention to their stunt.
Experts claim that once matters had got to the point where these politicians explicitly said that the purpose of their visit was to show the world that Japan has sovereignty over Dokdo, Korea had no choice but to turn them back. If the lawmakers had been attacked by irate patriots here, all hell would have broken loose on the diplomatic front. But turning them back was clearly only the second-worst option.
Relations have chilled since the Japanese Foreign Ministry ordered a nominal Korean Air boycott citing the test flight of the carrier's new A380 super-jumbo over Dokdo. A new Japanese defense white paper published Tuesday repeats Tokyo's historically flimsy claim to the Korean islets.
Experts say the way Korea handled the entire matter was a disaster.
Lee Won-duk, a professor of international relations at Kookmin University, said, "Those Japanese lawmakers are small fry in the LDP, but Korea's president, prime minister, the chairman of the ruling party, and the minister of special affairs all made an effort to stand up to them. That was extremely unwise."
"The Japanese lawmakers were probably surprised and delighted to find the entire political world in Korea agitated as they watched the issue get bigger and bigger," said Prof. Park Chul-hee of Seoul National University Graduate School of International Studies. "Maybe they'll decide to come to Korea as a bigger group next time."
◆ A Gift to Japanese Rightwingers
Upon leaving Seoul, the Japanese lawmakers pledged to come back. Given how much publicity they got out of their stunt for the LDP, which is in opposition, that does not seem unlikely.
Park added, "The LDP is trying to create an environment to support its efforts to retake power, while undermining the Democratic Party government, which values its relations with Korea."
A Japanese journalist said the stress being heaped on the Japanese government is enormous. First of all, a state visit by President Lee Myung-bak that Tokyo is hoping for in the second half of this year is now unlikely. Preliminary talks about a free trade agreement, which Tokyo also takes a keen interest in, will also likely be postponed. And Tokyo can now expect to find itself sidelined in talks about North Korea's nuclear program.
◆ Avoiding the Trap
Experts urge the government to avoid falling into the same Japanese trap again and again. Korea already controls the Dokdo Islets, so there is no need to respond to every challenge with disproportionate force, they say.
"The response to these provocations has to be proportionate," Prof. Lee said.