Japan has officially complained to South Korea about a trip to a disputed rocky island organized Thursday for selected foreign media organizations.
“We've already lodged a protest because the move is inconsistent with our country's position,” the Japanese foreign minister, Koichiro Gemba, told reporters in Tokyo on Friday.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a VOA interview, elaborated that for the South Korean government to transport correspondents via Seoul to the island is "totally unacceptable and extremely regrettable."
He said when the Japanese government learned Wednesday that the reporters, including at least one based in Tokyo, intended to accept the invitation from South Korea to take a helicopter ride to the islets Japan "strongly requested they refrain."
Some foreign media, on their own, have previously visited the islets, collectively known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, but rarely has South Korea's government attempted to organize a group trip.
A South Korean government attempt to take correspondents to the island by ship in April 2005 was unsuccessful due to bad weather but a second trip in August 2008 succeeded.
On Thursday, several media organizations including BBC, CNN, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
, International Herald Tribune
, Le Figaro
and The Washington Post
flew by helicopter to the largest western islet.
Japan's semi-official Kyodo news agency said the South Korean government-funded tour was “apparently sought to promote its claims to the islands.”
Several officials at South Korea's Foreign Ministry and the official Culture and Information Service (KOCIS), under the Ministry of Culture and Information, deny their entities were behind the controversial visit, contending it was organized by the Northeast Asia History Foundation. The foundation is a South Korean government-funded organization which is assertive in promoting Korean sovereignty over the disputed rocks.
“Because we did not organize the tour we have nothing to say,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman told VOA on condition he not be named.
But several of the reporters who were taken to the disputed territory say they were officially invited via South Korean government representatives.
“All indications are despite what South Korean officials declare today, the government here was intimately involved in planning this,” says Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club president Steve Herman, who is VOA's bureau chief in the South Korean capital.
Herman said the trip was arranged without the involvement of the SFCC, where about 100 of the Club's 250 correspondent members represent Japanese news outlets.
Some Japanese reporters in Seoul say they would be hesitant to visit the disputed rocks under such arrangements because they view it as recognizing South Korea's claim to the territory.
Tensions have dramatically increased between Seoul and Tokyo in recent months over the long-disputed rocks located halfway between the Korean peninsula and Japan's main island.
The territory, also known internationally as the Liancourt Rocks, consists of two main islets and numerous smaller reefs composing a total land mass of less than 19 hectares.
South Korea's Defense Ministry on Friday told VOA that on September 21 it scrambled F-15 fighter jets after a Japan Self- Defense Forces destroyer and one of the ship's anti-submarine warfare SH-60 helicopters “violated” its air defense safety zone without prior authorization.
“This activity did not pose any issue under international law,” Japan's defense minister, Satoshi Morimoto, responded on Friday.
Officials in Seoul say the 4,200-ton warship turned around away after a radio warning was issued by the South Korean military.
Following an unprecedented visit to the disputed territory in August by South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, the Japanese government announced it had begun preparations to unilaterally take the dispute to the International Court of Justice.
That is expected to further strain deteriorating bilateral ties. The United States, which has military bases in both countries, has urged both governments to work out the dispute through consultation.
South Korea has had armed personnel on the remote island since the 1950s. Japan considers the rocks part of its Shimane prefecture and terms South Korea's occupation illegal.
Japan is also enmeshed in decades-old unresolved territorial disputes with China and Russia that have also flared again in recent months.
Youmi Kim in the VOA Seoul bureau contributed to this report.