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South Korea: President's Unprecedented Visit to Disputed Islands a Smokescreen?

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented visit to the Dokdo islands, a group of islets which have been at the center of a decades-old territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan. It was not only the very first public visit by a South Korean leader but a highly controversial one which has sparked an international media frenzy.

The initial public response in South Korea was positive and Lee got rare compliments for his bold action, but as time went by, skepticism and suspicion grew stronger on the Korean Twittersphere, with many calling Lee's daring political stunt a smokescreen on other issues.

Angry reactions from Japan, which claims the islands as an integral part of its territory, were expected. But South Korean Twitter users made harsh accusations regarding the motive and effectiveness of Lee's visit on August 10, 2012.

Although a majority of Koreans left comments below related online news article praising Lee and describing his visit as either ‘patriotic’ or ‘bold‘ [ko], many out-spoken Twitter users stressed that it was a political wild card designed to restore Lee's popularity and cover up his and his party's bribery cases before the upcoming presidential election.

Image of Dokdo Islands

Image of Dokdo Islands, Image by 머찐만두 at Naver, Wikipedia Commons (CC BY SA 2.0)

One of South Korea's most influential Twitter users who is also a  journalist Huh Jae-hyun (@welovehani) tweeted [ko] that the visit was actually counter-productive in settling the dispute over the islands:

이명박 대통령의 독도방문. 잘 한건 잘한거라고 칭찬하자고요? 됐습니다. 대통령이 방문하건 말건 독도는 우리땅입니다. 괜한 퍼포먼스로 국제적으로 시끄러워지는 빌미만 제공했습니다. 대신 대통령은 애국자 이미지 득템하셨고.

Lee Myung-bak's visit to Dokdo islands: Should we be complimenting since it is good thing anyway? No way. Whether the president visited the islands or not, it is still our territory and actually, Lee made it all the more complicated by providing a good excuse for the other side to raise more disputes and invite commotion with his “political performance”. Moreover, Lee succeeded in building himself a patriotic image.

He also reminded [ko] of what Lee has gained in return:

독도방문으로 엠비가 얻은 것. 한일군사협정 밀실 추진 비판 물타기. 민간인사찰-새누리당 공천뇌물 뉴스 축소. 그러나 독도방문으로 얻은 외교적 실익은 없음. [...]

What MB has achieved by the Dokdo visit [note: MB is president's initial and his nickname]: Diffused criticism on his secret military agreement with Japan and attenuated media coverage on his administration's monitoring on civilians and the governing Saenuri Party's cash-for-nomination scandal. There is zero practical, diplomatic advantage our nation has gained through his visit.

Another popular Twitter user @mindgood expressed worries [ko] that the visit overshadowed other issues:

MB의 독도 방문에 한일 축구 4강전…여기에 일본 각료들 8.15에 야스쿠니 신사 참배 계획…언론들 한일 양국 극단 대립양상 보도로 새누리 공천비리 등 완전 덮힐 듯.

Followed by MB's Dokdo visit, these are lined up: A soccer match between South Korea and Japan, Japanese high-officials’ planned visit to Yasukuni Shrine on August 15. The ruling Saenuri party's money-for-nomination scandal will all be forgotten after we got through these intense spats between South Korean and Japanese media.

@mettayoon raised similar points [ko]:

독도를 가셔서 새로운 이슈 만들어 공천뇌물사건, 4대강 녹조라떼 건등 대선에서 새누리당에 불리하게 작용하는 의제들을 덮어 주시려고 독도방문을 통한 애국심코스프레를 결심하신 것은 아닌신지 모르겠습니다[...]

By visiting Dokdo, Lee has created a new issue which covers up other issues disadvantageous to his Saenuri party, such as the cash-for-nomination scandal and the fact that major rivers are turning into a green tea latte [note: a sarcastic comment on the government's Four Major Rivers Project which caused severe environmental damages to the rivers] It seems Lee wants to (play) with patriotism.

He added [ko] that although Lee acted (and indeed made remarks [ko]) as if his motive was purely patriotic and bold enough to disregard Japanese complaints, it was a carefully thought-out political event:

어제 일제히 일본언론에 독도 방문이 보도되었는데 청와대는 사전에 일본에 통보한 적 없다고 부인하네요. 사실이라면 대통령에 대한 일정도 일본에 보안이 안된다는 말인데 큰일이군요. 사전에 통보해 놓고 오리발을 내미는 거면 국민을 기망하는 것이고.

The Japanese media broke the news of Lee's Dokdo visit yesterday. But the presidential house denies it gave any prior notification to Japan. If the presidential house's claim were true, then there is a serious breach of security on its confidential information– such as the president's schedule. If their claim was a lie, then it means that they have fooled the Korean people.

Indeed, several local media revealed [ko] that although the South Korean presidential house stressed that there was no need to notify other countries in advance when visiting its own territory, Japanese media reported that the Japanese government was given prior notice.

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