As if this wasn't provocative enough, on Monday it was reported that at least 40 participants from South Korea, including South Korean singer Kim Jang-hoon, would swim the 220 kilometres from the South Korean mainland to the Liancourt Rocks, which they subsequently did (E). When President Lee was questioned about his decision to visit the island during a dinner held on the evening of the 10th, he stated that while it wasn't his intention to provoke Japan "any more than necessary", he cited a lack of willingness on the part of the Japanese government to sincerely discuss the question of apologies to Korean women forced to provide sexual services to the Imperial Japanese Army (the so-called "comfort women") as the reason for his visit, adding that during talks with PM Noda in December last year PM Noda was evasive in his responses to President Lee's questions and that nothing was done by the Japanese government to follow-up on the president's concerns (J).
As anyone familiar with the events of the leadership dialogue held last year would know, the question of comfort women was pushed by President Lee throughout the course of negotiations, despite Japan's attempts to steer the conversation towards economic and security related issues. Given that PM Noda would have to compromise his political dignity and face a storm of opposition in Japan should he agree to any conditions laid out by President Lee, small wonder then that the Japanese called an abrupt halt to discussions and refused to continue the dialogue (E). That this occured at the same time that a bronze statue depicting one of the comfort women was placed outside the front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul facing the embassy, and remains there despite protests from the Japanese that it be removed, added to the animosity between both sides.
While political commentators (and the North Korean government, (J) pointed out that Lee was pandering to a domestic audience through his visit in order to boost his credentials with those who accuse him of being too "close" to the Japanese (a point that was raised in the aftermath of scuttled talks between Japan and South Korea on defence co-operation in June (E), using highly sensitive issues to win kudos with domestic voters is a particularly risky move, and one that will have repercussions for whomever follows Lee into the presidency. At a time when South Korea needs regional partners to help it stave off the threat of war with North Korea and territorial incursions by Chinese government and fishing vessels into South Korea's EEZ, the mercurial actions of President Lee will give other governments pause for thought, particularly if it means South Korea adopting a stance that is totally at odds with received wisdom and which threatens to escalate rather than reduce tensions.
President Lee, having upped the ante with Japan on questions of war guilt and territorial claims, then proceeded to declare on Wednesday that should Emperor Akihito contemplate visiting South Korea, he should first issue a sincere apology to those Korean activists executed by Japanese forces during the Japanese occupation of Korea (J). As history has shown, the Japanese do not take kindly to demands being made of their imperial family, particularly as the Emperor is a titular sovereign representative of the nation as a whole and so personifies the quiet dignity that the Japanese ascribe to themselves. For a foreign head of government, particularly one from a neighbouring country, to cast doubt on the sincerity of Japan's previous apologies for its actions during the 30s and 40s (J), and then state that only a further apology from an apolitical figurehead will be sufficient to satisfy him virtually guarantees that Japan will both reject his demand and refuse to co-operate with him and his government (at least until this latest spat blows over, given the high proportion of citizens of both countries in the other and the degree of two-way trade between them).
While this topic was garnering headlines in Japan and South Korea, reports that North Korea and Japan had agreed to re-open negotiations on the return of the remains of Japanese troops and civilians that had died and been buried in North Korea managed to filter their way onto news websites (J). That North Korea was in this instance the side of Korea acting sensibly came as a surprise, although given the dire state of North Korea's agricultural regions and death toll stemming from heavy flooding, a desire to patch up relations with Japan is perhaps not quite so extraordinary, although it won't lead to any easing of sanctions for the forseeable future.
The other matter of sovereignty that attracted attention during the week was the departure from Hong Kong by a group of Chinese activists on board a fishing vessel who were determined to go ashore on the Senkaku Islands and proclaim China's sovereignty over them. As of Thursday, reports were that the activists had managed to go ashore on one of the islands (which would be the first time this has occured since 2004), only to be subsequently intercepted and arrested by the Japanese Coast Guard (J). As of Thursday morning the 14 crew members had been transferred to Naha airport to await charges of trespassing, with expectations that the crew members would be rapidly deported back to Hong Kong (J). The fact that these activists had clearly stated their goal was to land on the islands and that this would involve confronting Japan's border security might (and I repeat that word, might) convince Beijing not to escalate tensions, unlike the events of September 2010 (E). It might depend on the amount of time taken to process the activists, and whether China believes the activists are being undeservedly punished for asserting China's sovereignty.