Japan's fresh claim to disputed islands reignites feud with South Korea

A Japanese defense report released today reiterates the country's claims to a small chain of islands that South Korea also claims as its own.

Lee Sang-hack/Yonhap/AP
South Korean tourists are on a tour of Seodo, part of the disputed Dokdo islets, in the East Sea, South Korea, Monday, Aug. 1. South Korea has banned three Japanese lawmakers from entering the country after they arrived at a Seoul airport in an attempt to travel near the islands whose possession is in dispute between the neighbors. Seen in rear is Dongdo, also part of the disputed islands.

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A diplomatic showdown between Japan and South Korea is heating up over group of tiny rock outcroppings in the Japan Sea.

Japan released its 2011 defense report today, reiterating its claim to a chain of small islands (see map here) also claimed by South Korea.

The document comes a day after South Korea denied three Japanese lawmakers entry into the country. The three intended to visit Ulleung Island, the South Korean island closest to the disputed chain, known as the Dokdo Islands in South Korea and the Takeshima Islands in Japan. South Korean officials told the lawmakers that the visit could "trigger actions that would threaten public safety," the Japan Times reports.

The topic is so sensitive that even the talk of a visit launched protests in South Korea.

South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reports that the Japanese lawmakers' trip to Ulleung Island was seen as an attempt to bolster Japanese claims to the disputed island chain and that their entry was denied based on immigration laws that allow the government to ban people from entry who threaten the country's interests or public safety.

Yoshitaka Shindo of Japan's main opposition group, the Liberal Democratic Party, warned that turning away them away would become "a big diplomatic problem," according to the Japan Times. "Takeshima is Japanese territory," Mr. Shindo said at the airport. "Our positions are different and we need to talk to each other on the issue."

Japan has long claimed the islets as its own, but South Korea says they were returned to them after South Korea won independence from Japan in 1945. The feud was mostly dormant until this June, when Korean Air conducted a test flight of a new aircraft over the islets, according to CNN. Japan responded by banning its citizens from flying the airline.

Yonhap reports:

"The government's consistent and firm position is that Dokdo is our territory in terms of history, geography and international law," a ministry official told reporters on the condition of anonymity. "From this perspective, I deeply regret the fact that the Japanese government has again included unreasonable claims to Dokdo in this year's defense white paper, which are unhelpful to our bilateral relations."

This year's defense paper repeats the same phrase that has been included since 2005, claiming that "the territorial issue of the Northern Territories and Takeshima, which are proper to Japan, remains in an unresolved state."

A former Korean ambassador to Japan says that the Japanese lawmakers' visit was a move meant to bolster their domestic political standing. The conservative opposition hopes to convince the Japanese public that the ruling party isn't tough enough to protect the country's interests in territorial disputes, the Korea Times reports.

A South Korean politician also sought to project himself as the strongest protector of his country's rights. The minister for special affairs, Lee Jae-oh, rumored to be running for president in the next election, visited Ulleung Island "to send an unmistakable message that Korea owns Dokdo."

While politicians in both countries posture over the dispute, the South Korean government has tried to keep the diplomatic row a quiet one out of concern that an angry or violent response would undermine their claims to Dokdo, according to the Korea Times.

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