South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak (Photo:Reuters)
Three Japanese lawmakers pushing their country's claim to disputed islands were denied entry to South Korea Monday but are refusing to fly home from a Seoul airport, the justice ministry said.
Immigration officials stopped the three members of Japan's conservative opposition Liberal Democratic Party when they arrived at Gimpo airport on Monday morning.
"They have been refusing for hours to leave," a ministry spokesman told AFP.
"We should try to persuade them voluntarily to go back. I'm not sure if we could forcibly take them to an airplane."
The foreign ministry said it would not intervene in the stand-off. "We have no plan to reach out...they'll go back when they think they can no longer stick around," a spokesman said.
The three had planned to visit Ulleung island, the closest South Korean territory to the uninhabited Dokdo islands in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), which are known in Japan as Takeshima.
A fourth lawmaker who had intended to join them cancelled his trip but Yoshitaka Shindo and two others went ahead.
Hundreds of activists protest at Gimpo, waving banners asserting South Korea's ownership of the islands and burning photos of the lawmakers.
Some banners read "Stop Japan!" or "You die!" Other protesters carried a coffin plastered with photos of the lawmakers, amid tight security.
Shindo, the grandson of a general in the imperial Japanese army, has said in a video message on his website that "South Korea has illegally and militarily occupied part of what is undoubtedly our territory."
"We don't intend to fight there. We want to express our feeling of anger to the South Korean people," he said.
The two other lawmakers are Tomomi Inada, a former lawyer who denies the 1937 Nanjing massacre by Japanese troops in China, and Masahisa Sato, a former member of the military who headed a Japanese reconstruction mission to Iraq in 2004.
Speaking to reporters at the airport, Shindo reiterated his country's claim that Dokdo belongs to Japan.
"However, we must discuss this issue as there is a difference in opinion between Japan and South Korea," Yonhap news agency quoted him as saying.
"If our entry is denied, we will visit once again," he added, saying that the entry ban might evolve into a diplomatic row between the nations.
The latest row began when flag carrier Korean Air mounted a test flight of its new A380 aircraft over Dokdo in June. Tokyo in response ordered public servants not to use Korean Air for a month.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak last week ordered officials to advise Tokyo that Seoul "cannot guarantee the lawmakers' safety" and to urge them to cancel the visit.
Older South Koreans still have bitter memories of Japan's harsh colonial rule over Korea from 1910-45. Seoul says it regained control over all of its territory, including Dokdo, at the end of the colonial period.
It posts a small coastguard force on Dokdo and has sought to strengthen its control over the islets after Tokyo in March authorised new school textbooks reasserting its claims to them.
North Korea, in rare agreement with Seoul, has denounced the lawmakers' planned trip.
"The Japanese reactionaries' recent moves are serious issues not to be tolerated by the Korean nation," the official news agency commented Saturday, saying the lawmakers intend to seize both Ulleung and Dokdo.