WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday tried to ease its way out of a dispute between South Korea and Japan over a cluster of islands both countries claim, which had threatened to mar U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Seoul next week.
A small government agency, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, had changed its designation of the islands from South Korea to no longer belonging to any country, sparking outrage in Seoul at a perceived shift in U.S. policy.
The White House said that decision would be reversed after complaints by South Korea. Bush will visit Seoul August 5-6 amid lingering tensions from another dispute, the lifting of a five-year ban on U.S. beef imports into the country.
"We regret that this change in designation was perceived by South Koreans as some sort of change in our policy," Dennis Wilder, senior director for Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council, told reporters.
The islands are called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.
After the United States was contacted by high-level South Korean government officials, Bush ordered U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to look into the matter, Wilder said.
"It was decided after that review that the change in designation was not warranted at this time, and so that database is now being restored to where it was prior to this change in designation," he said.
Wilder noted that U.S. policy remained that Washington was neutral and that Japan and South Korea needed to resolve the dispute diplomatically.
The question of sovereignty, long a sore point in relations, erupted again this month after schools in Japan were advised to refer to them as Japanese territory. It sparked angry protests outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and the South Korean government made an official protest.
Japan and South Korea both claim historical rights to the cluster of rocks, which have little obvious economic value but are in the midst of fishing grounds and may sit above valuable deposits of natural gas hydrate.
(Editing by Eric Beech)