(Adds PM’s comments on islands, Japanese spokesman and North Korea)
By Jack Kim
SEOUL, July 29 (Reuters) - South Korea’s prime minister on Tuesday went to a set of desolate islands at the centre of a territorial tussle with Japan and criticised a U.S. government agency for shifting its position on their ownership.
The long-burning dispute over the rocky outcrop erupted again this month after an official school history guide in Japan referred to the islands as Japanese territory, triggering angry demonstrations in Seoul and an official protest from South Korea.
"No matter what anyone says it is our child," Han Seung-soo was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency on the small cluster of islands called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.
The dispute took a fresh twist when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which refers to them by a third name as the Liancourt Rocks, described the islands as not belonging to any state. The agency earlier had listed the islands as South Korean territory.
Han, speaking at a weekly cabinet meeting, called the agency’s decision not to make any reference to South Korean sovereignty as "very regrettable and contrary to historic fact".
The dispute over the lonely cluster of islands has been a persistent sore in relations between the two neighbours, reviving bitter memories of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.
North Korea, which rarely misses a chance to criticise South Korea’s conservative government, sided with Seoul by accusing Japan over using the issue to try to "reinvade the rest of Asia."
"Japan is historically known to have looted a lot of things from other countries, while telling the lie that they belong to it," the North’s official KCNA news agency quoted a spokesman for its History Society as saying.
But Japan said the visit to the rocks by South Korea’s prime minister was only adding to the tension.
"(The) basic point of view for both sides is to calmly respond to build a new era in Japan-Korea relations, so I don’t think it is very appropriate to take actions that stir up the differences like this," Japan’s top government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura said.
The South Korean Navy said it would conduct a joint drill with the Air Force in defence of the islands on Wednesday.
But more recently, much of the fury in South Korea has been directed against its own officials for not preventing any change in the U.S. agency’s categorisation of the islands.
The islands are controlled by South Korea, which has a police presence there, and lie about the same distance from the mainlands of both countries.
The surrounding waters are popular with squid fishermen while the seabed may have valuable natural gas hydrate deposits.
On Monday, U.S. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said the change in the classification of the islets did not reflect a change in U.S.’s decades-old stance of not taking a position in the dispute. (Additional reporting by Kim Jung-hyun in Seoul and Yoko Kubota in Tokyo; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Sanjeev Miglani)