Leeâ€™s surprise trip to the disputed territory in the Sea of Japan (or East Sea) was the first by a South Korean president, and analysts both in Seoul and Tokyo said Lee was trying to boost his flagging popularity at home.
But Japanese Foreign MinisterÂ Koichiro GembaÂ warned the visit would â€œdefinitely have a large impactâ€ on bilateral relations between the key trade partners. In protest, Japan asked its ambassador to South Korea to temporarily return home and lodged a complaint with the South Korean envoy in Tokyo, Shin Kak-soo.
The trip was â€œvery regrettable,â€ said Masaru Sato, a spokesman for Japanâ€™s foreign ministry, â€œand it contradicts Japanâ€™s positionâ€ about the islets.
Leeâ€™s trip marked an abrupt and curious escalation in the way South Korea has handled its long-brewing territorial dispute, and response in Seoul was mixed. The president, with six months remaining on his single five-year term, has dealt lately with sagging approval ratings â€” driven lower by a recent corruption scandal involving his brother â€” and his party has tried to distance itself from Lee ahead of December elections.
An opposition party spokesman in Seoul criticized Lee for a â€œpublicity stuntâ€ intended to deflect criticism of his failings, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The islets, known in Korea as Dokdo and in Japan asÂ Takeshima, have been a focal point of tensions between the countries for decades. The rocks â€” inhabited by just a handful residents, guarded by a small Korean police detachment â€” sit halfway between the two countries, in an area known for its rich fishing. They are controlled by South Korea, but Japan makes frequent claims to the territory, most recently in a defense ministry white paper released last week.
Leeâ€™s trip to Dodko could further stall aÂ controversial military pactÂ that has been negotiated between the two countries but put on hold because of domestic resistance in Seoul.