DOKDO/SEOUL, South Korea, Aug. 10 (Yonhap) -- President Lee Myung-bak strongly asserted South Korea's sovereignty over the country's easternmost islets of Dokdo on Friday as he made an unprecedented visit to the territory that Japan has long claimed.
Japan lodged strong protests against the surprise visit, recalling its ambassador from Seoul, calling in South Korea's envoy to Tokyo, and warning that the trip would seriously worsen relations between the two countries.
Amid scattering rain and fog, Lee flew by helicopter to the rocky outcroppings lying in the East Sea around halfway between the Korean Peninsula and Japan from nearby Ulleung Island, becoming the first South Korean president ever to visit the islets.
"Dokdo is the end of our territory. Please make sure to defend Dokdo well," Lee said during a briefing by a police unit stationed on Dokdo. "Dokdo is indeed our territory and a place worth staking our lives to defend. Let's make sure to safeguard (the islets) with pride."
During the 70-minute stay on Dokdo, Lee also met with two residents living there, paid his respects at a monument honoring those killed while defending the islets, and toured other sites, including a rock with the words, "Korean Territory," inscribed on it.
"We have to ensure that the environment is not damaged," Lee told the police unit during the briefing. "We have to preserve Dokdo as it is. Though we have to guard it, we also have to preserve its environment as well."
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak tours the country's easternmost islets of Dokdo during a landmark visit on Aug. 10, 2012. (Yonhap)
The historic visit came days before South Korea observes Liberation Day on Wednesday to mark Korea's independence from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule, the root source of long-running bad blood between the two neighboring nations.
Japan strongly protested Lee's visit.
Tokyo's Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba recalled the country's ambassador to Seoul, Masatoshi Muto, filed official complaints with South Korean Ambassador to Japan Shin Kak-soo and made a protest call to South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan.
In the meeting with Shin, Gemba said Lee's visit to Dokdo was unacceptable in light of Japan's position, but the South Korean envoy maintained that the trip was part of an inspection visit to a provincial region and that Dokdo is South Korean territory over which Seoul exercises sovereignty.
Gemba also lodged a similar protest in the phone call with Kim, but Kim rejected the appeal.
"Foreign minister Kim made it clear once again that the Dokdo is our territory in historical, geographical and international terms, so then no dispute is possible," a ministry official said, adding Kim also expressed regrets over "undue measures Tokyo took over the matter."
Earlier in the day, Gemba urged South Korea to call off the Dokdo trip, warning that Tokyo would respond firmly to the move and the visit "would definitely have a large impact" on relations between the two countries. Senior diplomatic sources in Tokyo said that the annual finance ministers meeting between the two countries has been postponed over Lee's tour.
Reflecting on the impact of the surprise visit, Ambassador Muto told reporters as he boarded a plane for Tokyo that he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the future of bilateral relations, although the diplomat said relations have been improving slowly but steadily.
The envoy added that Japan had been aware of the possibility of the president making a visit but had only recently "confirmed" it, offering no details on the source.
He said Tokyo called on Seoul to reconsider because it was a serious matter.
The recall marks the second time that Japan's top diplomat in the country has been ordered back home. The first took place in 2005, when Tokyo's ambassador went back after publicly claiming that Dokdo belonged to Japan during a news conference in Seoul. South Korea has recalled its envoy four times so far with the last time being in 2008.
Japanese media reported earlier that South Korea notified Tokyo of the planned visit, but officials in Seoul rejected those reports.
"Why do we have to notify Japan when our president goes to our territory?" an official said.
The environment and culture ministers accompanied Lee on the historic trip, officials said.
South Korea's military tightened security around Dokdo in anticipation of the visit.
"The military increased the number of Air Force combat planes and Navy vessels patrolling (near Dokdo)," a senior official said. "The military reinforced its forces to prepare in case of an emergency, as Lee is expected to visit Dokdo."
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak shakes hands with a member of the local police unit during a landmark visit to the country's easternmost islets of Dokdo on Aug. 10, 2012. (Yonhap)
Japan has long laid claims to Dokdo in school textbooks, government reports and other ways, undercutting better ties between the neighboring nations. Last week, Japan renewed the claims in its annual defense "White Paper" report outlining the country's defense policy.
This week, Japan also lodged a protest about Seoul's diplomatic "White Paper" describing Dokdo as Korean territory, officials said. It was the first time Japan has raised protests over the diplomatic report.
South Koreans see those claims as amounting to denying Korea's rights because the country regained independence from colonial rule and reclaimed sovereignty over its territory, including Dokdo and many other islands around the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea has kept a small police detachment on Dokdo since 1954.
The territorial claims have been viewed by South Koreans as a sign Japan has not fully repented for its imperialist past, along with Tokyo's refusal to address long-running grievances of elderly Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during World War II.
It is unclear why Lee chose to make a visit at this point, about six months before he leaves office in February, but aides said he has considered visiting the islets from the beginning of his term in early 2008, and actual plans have been in place.
"President Lee has tried to visit Dokdo a few times, but folded up the plans" due to various reasons, a senior secretary said on condition of anonymity.
Analysts said the Dokdo trip could affect exchange projects with Japan, such as now-stalled efforts to forge what would be their first-ever military pact and negotiations to work out a free trade agreement between two of Asia's largest economies.
The planned signing of the military information-sharing deal was put on hold at the last minute in late June as criticism rose sharply in South Korea following revelations the Cabinet covertly passed the delicate pact with the former colonial ruler.
"Relations between South Korea and Japan cannot but be strained," said Chin Chang-soo, a senior analyst on Korea-Japan affairs for the Sejong Institute think tank. "Tensions could last for a long time."
But others said the visit shows Seoul's firm intention to safeguard its sovereignty over Dokdo.
"This could be an opportunity to get Japanese political leaders to awaken to the fact that this is an issue serious enough for South Korea's president to take action," a retired diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
South Korea and Japan are key trade partners and cooperate closely in efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. But issues related to the colonial rule, including Dokdo, have been a drag on their relations.