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South Korea angers Japan in territorial dispute

There's anger in Japan after South Korea's leader visited a group of remote islands under dispute between the two countries. It's the first ever visit by a South Korean president to the rocky volcanic outcrops.

South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's trip to the islands, known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, marks a new turn in a dispute which has stretched on for decades.

The islands are controlled by Seoul, which has stationed a coastguard detachment on them since 1954, but Tokyo also says it has a claim on them.

Situated among rich fishing grounds in the Sea of Japan, they cover a land area of 18.7 hectares (46.3 acres), and are comprised of two main islands and 35 smaller rocks. Seoul officials say the area contains reserves of gas hydrates.

Lee's visit also comes just days before the August 15 anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, a day which ended the country's 35-year colonial rule over Korea.

Relationship strains

The relationship between South Korea and Japan is still marred by historical disputes such as the row over the Dokdo islands, despite closer economic ties, and many older Koreans still hold bitter memories of the brutal colonial rule by Japan.

South Korea has announced it will start to stage regular military exercises near the islands, and before the president's visit it reportedly increased patrols around the area.

However, in Japan's latest defense paper, the country renewed its claim on the islands, prompting a strong protest by the South Korean government last week in a meeting with a senior Japanese diplomat.

There are also other issues at play. Following Korean protests, South Korea scrapped the signing of a military information sharing agreement with Japan in June. The country is also believed to be annoyed at Japan's refusal to compensate some elderly Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.

Response to Lee Myung-Bak's visit

Japan's foreign minister Koichiro Gemba has said that any such visit "would have an impact on Japan-South Korea relations" and a firm response can be expected.

One political analyst said the visit was not a wise move. "In the long term, considering there will be many problems [between the two countries], I doubt whether this is the right time to play this card," said political analyst Jin Chang-Soo of South Korea's Sejong Institute.

jr/slk (AFP, dpa)