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Why Japan is angry over South Korea's visit to an island

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's surprise visit to a small rocky island marks an abrupt escalation in a territory dispute with Japan.

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South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (c.) looks at a national flag upon his arrival at islands called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan Friday, Aug. 10. Lee made a surprise visit Friday to islets at the center of a long-running territorial dispute with Japan, ignoring warnings from Tokyo that it would worsen the neighbors' already strained relations.

AP

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South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has sparked a diplomatic rift with Tokyo after visiting a pair of disputed islets. 

The rocks located in the Sea of Japan, or East Sea, are known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.  Both nations assert sovereignty over the rocky outcrops, but observers say President Lee’s trip there on Friday is Seoul’s strongest rebuke yet to Japan’s territorial claim.  

“President Lee’s visit is a departure from his old way of dealing with Dokdo,” says Moon Chung-in, a political science lecturer at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “In the past, the South Korean government pursued quiet diplomacy. But apparently, President Lee Myung-bak came to realize this is not working.”     

The reaction from Tokyo was swift. Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba called Lee’s visit “utterly unacceptable” and announced that Japan’s ambassador to Seoul had been temporarily recalled.  

The islets were left out of the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco that ended World War II and officially returned territory to Korea from Japan after its colonization of the entire peninsula from 1910-1945. Since that time, South Korea has stationed a small coast guard unit on one of the islets.

Waters around the rocks are rich with marine life and the seabed is reported to be rife with untapped gas and other natural resources. 

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