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S. Korea Recalls Tokyo Envoy As Decades-Old Island Dispute Flares


South Korea is calling its ambassador to Japan home, in the latest flare-up of a decades-old dispute. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, the islands at the heart of the conflict trigger some very painful memories for Koreans.

South Korea's abrupt recall of its ambassador came soon after the education ministry in Tokyo outlined plans to issue new school books describing a disputed island chain as rightfully belonging to Japan.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young says the country's ambassador will return home for the time being.

He says what Japan is doing is completely unacceptable.

The rocky, almost uninhabitable islands in question lie about 200 kilometers off the southeastern coast of the Korean peninsula-- much closer than they are to any Japanese territory. Japan calls them Takeshima. South Korea calls them Dokdo, and has exercised de facto control over them for decades. Seoul even stations a small number of coast guard personnel there.

For Koreans, the islands' geographical significance runs a distant second to their symbolism. Japan subjected the Korean peninsula to harsh colonial rule during the first half of the 20th century. South Koreans point to the Dokdo issue as one of many examples of Japan failing to let go of its imperial past.

South Korea's Foreign Minister summoned Japan's ambassador Monday to protest the action. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has instructed officials to deal with Japan's claim "sternly."

South Korean Presidential Spokesman Lee Dong-kwan calls it "deeply regrettable" that Japan has again laid territorial claim to Dokdo in violation of agreements. He says South Korea will take strong countermeasures to preserve its sovereign control.

South Korean civic groups have already begun taking to the streets. At a demonstration Monday, protesters burned a Japanese flag and wrote slogans in blood on a South Korean flag. South Korean political parties are also rallying behind the government's assertions of sovereignty over the islands.

So far, the dispute continues to play out diplomatically. Two years ago, South Korea and Japan came within days of a possible sea skirmish when South Korea sent coast guard vessels to intercept a Japanese maritime survey of the islands being conducted without its permission.

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