S. Korea Recalls Tokyo Envoy As Decades-Old Island Dispute Flares

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14 July 2008

South Korea is calling its ambassador to Japan home, in the latestflare-up of a decades-old dispute. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports fromSeoul, the islands at the heart of the conflict trigger some verypainful memories for Koreans.

South Korea's abrupt recall of itsambassador came soon after the education ministry in Tokyo outlinedplans to issue new school books describing a disputed island chain asrightfully belonging to Japan.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young says the country's ambassador will return home for the time being.

He says what Japan is doing is completely unacceptable.

Therocky, almost uninhabitable islands in question lie about 200kilometers off the southeastern coast of the Korean peninsula-- muchcloser than they are to any Japanese territory. Japan calls themTakeshima. South Korea calls them Dokdo, and has exercised de factocontrol over them for decades. Seoul even stations a small number ofcoast guard personnel there.

For Koreans, the islands'geographical significance runs a distant second to their symbolism. Japan subjected the Korean peninsula to harsh colonial rule during thefirst half of the 20th century. South Koreans point to the Dokdo issueas one of many examples of Japan failing to let go of its imperial past.

SouthKorea's Foreign Minister summoned Japan's ambassador Monday to protestthe action. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has instructedofficials to deal with Japan's claim "sternly."

South KoreanPresidential Spokesman Lee Dong-kwan calls it "deeply regrettable" thatJapan has again laid territorial claim to Dokdo in violation ofagreements. He says South Korea will take strong countermeasures topreserve its sovereign control.

South Korean civic groups havealready begun taking to the streets. At a demonstration Monday,protesters burned a Japanese flag and wrote slogans in blood on a SouthKorean flag. South Korean political parties are also rallying behindthe government's assertions of sovereignty over the islands.

Sofar, the dispute continues to play out diplomatically. Two years ago,South Korea and Japan came within days of a possible sea skirmish whenSouth Korea sent coast guard vessels to intercept a Japanese maritimesurvey of the islands being conducted without its permission.