A centuries-old territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea is again escalating. In recent weeks, Japanese ultra-nationalists have attempted to land on the tiny island group they call Takeshima. South Koreans, more recently, made the Japanese angry by placing a group of amateur radio operators on the rocky islets known in Korean as Dokdo (or Tokdo).
To the Koreans the volcanic isles are known as the Lonely Islands. To the Japanese they are the Bamboo Islands. Both sides say their ties to the small islands exactly midway between them go back centuries.
These days there is more than hard-to-inhabit rocks at stake -- the claim includes nearly 58,000 square kilometers of sea and seabed, including rich fishing grounds, potential natural gas reserves and mineral deposits.
Japan and South Korea held numerous talks on the issue after World War II, but did not reach any significant compromise. In recent decades there has been an unspoken agreement to disagree, according to former foreign minister and South Korean Ambassador to Japan, Gong Ro-myung.
"Both governments try to keep the issue out of the basic relations between the two countries," he says. "Although we recognize this is a quite serious issue."
Determining the ownership of the islands is critical because Japan and South Korea have ratified the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty. In effect since 1994, the treaty demarcates the so-called exclusive economic zones, and has been ratified by 145 countries.
University of Hawaii law professor Jon Van Dyke, an expert on Asia Pacific maritime border disputes, says Japan places a premium on its territorial waters. "Japan has historically taken what you could call a pretty aggressive approach toward claiming ocean space so their exclusive economic zone is one of the largest in the world," says Mr. Van Dyke.
South Korea raised the stakes in mid-January by issuing postage stamps featuring the island it calls Dokdo.
Japan's ministry for postal services demanded Seoul recall the stamps, while Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi uttered a fresh Japanese claim to the territory known here as Takeshima.
A week ago, a group of South Korean ham radio operators took to the air from one of the islets.
The radio station, D77-A, licensed by South Korea, was seen as a provocation by the Japanese. Some amateur radio operators in Japan responded by interfering with the South Korean station's transmissions, sending operators nasty messages in Morse code, calling them dogs or idiots and demanding they leave the airwaves.
Many ham operators around the world were surprised to hear the dispute because their hobby stresses friendly international communications.
Wayne Mills in the U.S. state of Connecticut works at the American Radio Relay League, the international secretariat for the International Amateur Radio Union. "Actually ham radio operators are not interested in general in making political statements," he says. "When they do DX'ing - or talking to stations all over the world - they're interested in? contact with rare places."
Korean tempers flared earlier this month when a group of Japanese right-wing activists attempted to land on the dispute islands in the name of "Japan's ancient racial spirit."
Stormy weather and Japan's Coast Guard stopped the group from landing, but the attempt prompted South Korea to mobilize a number of warships and military aircraft.
South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon called the attempted landing provocative and reiterated Seoul's claim that the islets are "historically, geographically and from the viewpoint of international law," the territory of the Republic of Korea.
The two countries have worked out fishing agreements for the waters around the territory. But Japan contends South Korea is illegally occupying the islands, making it impossible for Japan to lay claim to its rights.
South Korean maritime police maintain a station on one of the rocky outcroppings, also known by the English name Liancourt Rocks.
Professor Van Dyke, the maritime law expert, says he has suggested that the South Koreans take their case to an international tribunal. "They really aren't open to that because the consequences of losing, even if I tell them "you have a 95 percent chance of winning," they say, "Well, we can't take that five percent [chance], that's unacceptable because this is ours.""
Dr. Katy Oh, an expert on Korea at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C., a U.S. funded think tank, says the Korean people feel deeply about the tiny islands. "It's not a pragmatic cause but if these Korean lose this island that means "forever we surrender to the Japanese imperialism who colonized us," she says.
The United States, which has close defense and economic ties with both Japan and South Korea, takes a neutral stance.
Former Ambassador Gong, now Director of Japanese Studies at South Korea's Hallym University and co-chair of the bilateral Japan-Korea Forum, says Washington's reaction is typical.
"This has been, I think, a rather consistent policy of the U.S. government," he says. "When the disputes involve Japan and Korea, the U.S. tries to stay away from it. I think this [dispute] is one of the most classical, typical case[s]."
America's defense pacts with both countries means U.S. forces could not aid South Korea or Japan should either party or any other nation attack the disputed rocks halfway between them.