— South Korea on Friday staged a drill around a small island it controls but is also claimed by Japan. The long-standing dispute about the maritime territory nearly equidistant between the two countries has re-emerged to plunge Japan-South Korea relations to their lowest point in many years.
Amid increased worries internationally about the territorial spat South Korea scaled back, but did not cancel, the latest maritime drill off its eastern coast.
The coast guard led the exercise but South Korea's marines did not, as had been originally planned, land on any of the Liancourt Rocks.
Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Lee Boong-woo, speaking to reporters Friday, declined to give many specifics about the controversial drill.
Army colonel Lee says the coast guard is in the lead, backed by other military elements, in a scenario where foreign civilians invade South Korea's territorial sea. The size of the drill, the participating forces and its schedule, he says, will not be confirmed.
The islets, known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, are under Seoul's administrative control but it has not stationed any of its military there.
Attention was refocused on the long-standing dispute when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented visit to the rocks on August 10th.
A senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, Baek Seung-joo says the presidential visit demonstrated his country's effective control of the territory but there will likely be more military drills on the islets in the future.
Baek says as long as the coast guard, and not the military, is leading such exercises it should not exacerbate tensions with Japan.
South Korean newspapers, following Japan's harsh protests about Lee's visit, published articles speculating war could erupt between the two countries or that Japanese activists might land there.
Word of the planned exercise prompted Tokyo to ask Seoul not to go ahead with it but the Japanese government did not raise strong objections.
South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young denies any changes were made because of Japanese concerns.
Cho says it is not true that the landing of marines was scrapped at Japan's request.
A researcher at Seoul National University's Korea Politics Institute, Eom Ho-keon, says beyond national pride, the disputed rocks are important strategically, including for use as a radar station.
Eom asserts the drill is intended to further demonstrate the islets are Korean territory. But Japan views that differently, he says, and Tokyo is likely to further press its contentions if the drill receives significant international media coverage.
Some of the renewed media attention about the rocks is raising the ire of South Korea's government.
The Foreign Ministry took the unusual step of publicly objecting to a Newsweek magazine article. Spokespeople for the ministry say the article is biased and they plan to refute its contents.
A Newsweek editor contacted by VOA says the magazine stands behind the article.
was published in the magazine's latest international edition, but not in its Korean version.
The reporter who wrote the article, who is also the editor-in-chief of Newsweek’s Japan edition, characterizes the dispute as “downright juvenile.” But the article says the row has Washington concerned because cooperation from both Tokyo and Seoul “is essential in keeping North Korea in check.”
The rocks, composed of less than 19 hectares of land, are a highly emotional issue for South Koreans. Although Japan has never made any physical moves to reacquire the territory its lists the rocks in government documents and textbooks as part of Shimane prefecture.
Japan asserted colonial control over the entire Korean peninsula from the early 20th century until its defeat by the Allied powers in 1945, bringing to an end the World War II.