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South Koreans Protest Over Disputed Islands with Japan

South Korea vented its anger Wednesday after a regional legislature in Japan passed a symbolic resolution about a set of disputed islands. As street protests over the matter are intensifying in Seoul, so is the level of the South Korean government's official response.

South Korean authorities say they will allow and encourage citizens to visit a set of tiny islands at the heart of a dispute with Japan.

The announcement came Wednesday, just hours after a the Shimane Prefecture assembly in Japan passed a resolution designating what it calls "Takeshima Day." Takeshima is the Japanese name for the islands, which lie between Japan and the Korean peninsula. Koreans call the islands "Tokto."

The vote has no legal bearing and Japan's national government has distanced itself from the Shimane assembly's action.

Yoo Hong-joon is the director of South Korea's Cultural Heritage Administration. Mr. Yoo says previous environmental restrictions will be eased to allow Koreans to visit the islands, which he says are part of their heritage.

Japan and South Korea have disagreed about who owns the islands since the end of the Second World War. In recent weeks, however, the dispute has flared in anticipation of the Japanese vote. South Korea's National Security Council is scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss a response to the vote.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon called the vote "deplorable" and his ministry said Japan would be responsible for all consequences from the vote.

Also Thursday, in a rare show of unanimity, South Korean lawmakers from three major parties have scheduled a trip to the islands. They say they will leave behind stones from the two highest mountains on the Korean peninsula.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Lee Kyu-hyeong wasted no time in reasserting Seoul's claim to the islands on Wednesday. Mr. Lee condemns the vote, and says it has no legal effect on South Korea's sovereignty over the islands.

South Korea maintains a small Coast Guard presence on the islands, which are too small and rocky to support many inhabitants. It is the islands' symbolism that stirs deep feelings among Koreans.

Angry South Koreans have protested every day this week in front of the Japanese embassy here in Seoul. Earlier in the week, two South Koreans cut off a finger each to display their feelings over the issue.

Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony from 1910 to 1945 and harshly suppressed Korean cultural identity. For decades, South Korean authorities have accused Japan of whitewashing its colonial past and failing to compensate Koreans for abuses during the colonial period.