S.Korea steps up defense of disputed islets

ABOARD THE SAMBONG COAST GUARD SHIP (Reuters) - On a South Korean coast guard patrol ship chugging towards desolate islands at the centre of a bitter territorial row with Japan, academics and officials vow to repel any Japanese claim to the lonely outcrops.

A foreign reporter takes a picture of a member of South Korean coast guard during a press tour to Dokdo, a group of desolate volcanic islets called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, in this August 25, 2008 file photo. The dispute over the islands is deeply emotional for Koreans, who say the islands were the first pieces of their territory seized by Japan when it started its 1910-1945 colonial reign over the peninsula. REUTERS/Noh Sun-Tag/Files

Over the past few weeks, the South Korean president, politicians, actors and even companies making mobile phones and fizzy beverages have delivered the same patriotic message for Japan to keep its hands off the remote islands.

South Korea and Japan both claim historical rights to the cluster of rocks, which the Koreans call Dokdo (“solitary island”) and the Japanese call Takeshima (“bamboo island”).

“Our mission is to prevent anyone from claiming that Dokdo is not Korean territory,” said Kim Hyun-soo, head of the newly created Dokdo Research Institute.

“We are striving to offer scientific, incontrovertible proof that Dokdo is Korean,” the international law expert said, while declining to discuss the size of the institute’s budget or staff, saying any details could be used by outside interests to track its activities.

The dispute over the islands is deeply emotional for Koreans, who say the islands were the first pieces of their territory seized by Japan when it started its 1910-1945 colonial reign over the peninsula.

Japan has insisted the islands were never a part of Korea to begin with, so they were not returned when Tokyo relinquished its claims to the peninsula following its defeat in World War Two.

The long-simmering dispute erupted again in July after an official school history teaching guide in Japan referred to the islands as Japanese territory, triggering angry demonstrations in Seoul and an official protest from South Korea.

South Korea responded by forming the research institute, sending ships to fortify Dokdo’s defenses and saying it would build even more structures on the islands that it controls.

Representatives of the Dokdo Research Institute took foreign correspondents to the islands, which are situated about the same distance from the mainlands of South Korea and Japan.

Once on Dokdo, reporters were free to speak with police officers and military conscripts in charge of defending the territory.

“When I look at Dokdo, I am filled with pride at the idea that I am working for the country,” said Kim Yang-soo, the police officer in charge of the 30-odd men stationed on the island.

Reporters were also treated to the sight of Kim Sung-do, who along with his wife is the only civilian living permanently on the island with the financial help of the local administration.

The weathered, 68-year-old fisherman and Vietnam War veteran, often featured on national media, smoothly delivered a few choice words against Japan.

“Instead of being apologetic, Japan is becoming more and more brazen,” Kim said. “This worries me. It has to stop.”

Yet even officer Kim acknowledged that no Japanese ship had come anywhere near the grey, rocky outcrops in recent memory.

Emotions aside, possession of the islands could bring enormous benefits.

The cluster, which comprises of two main rocks and dozens of “insular features,” lies in fertile fishing grounds and may sit above potentially enormous deposits of natural gas hydrate.

According to the government-funded Northeast Asian History Foundation, academic studies have shown the gas hydrate reserves could meet South Korea’s natural gas needs for 30 years, for a value of almost $15 billion.

Analysts said previous South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun used to fan the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment to build political support. Since the dispute flared up, successor replacement Lee Myung-bak has seen his support rate recover from a nose-dive during his first few months in office.

On a sunny summer afternoon earlier this week, two photographers who had made the journey from the mainland and had received special permission to shoot the largely unspoiled islands were waiting for a ferry out.

“The island is much bigger than we had expected. It’s beautiful,” said one man, who gave only his surname, Lee.

“It’s a strong symbol, but I just wonder if Koreans have to always be shown portraying Dokdo as a fight to the death,” Lee said. “This is just a beautiful place.”

Editing by Jonathan Hopfner and Megan Goldin