July 30, 2008 / 8:11 AM / 12 years ago

South Korea navy stages drill at disputed islets

SEOUL, July 30 (Reuters) - South Korea on Wednesday conducted naval defence drills around a cluster of islands at the centre of an increasingly angry dispute with Japan over their ownership.

The drills come a day after South Korea’s prime minister made a very public visit to the rocky outcrop, a move that Japan said only added to the latest tension in already delicate relations between the two Asian neighbours.

"This drill is being conducted under the scenario of an imaginary force invading the territorial waters of Dokdo," the Navy said in a statement, referring to the islands known in Japan as Takeshima and which lie about halfway between the two countries.

"The Navy, in a joint operation with the Coast Guard and the Air Force, intercepts then expels the force."

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.

The United States added to South Korea’s irritation this week when its agency responsible for geographical names changed its designation of the outcrop — which it calls the Liancourt Rocks — as not belonging to any state.

"If the United States does not correct a mistake, South Korea-U.S. ties will become very difficult," the mainstream Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial.

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.

The current dispute has its roots in Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula, a bitterly remembered era in South Korea that many in the country believe Tokyo has never fully atoned for.

South Korea has a small police presence on the islands and its Coast Guard regularly patrols the waters, which have not been the scene of armed confrontation except for a sharp escalation in 2006, when dozens of patrol ships faced off over a planned survey by Japan of the area’s underwater geography. (Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and David Fox)

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