South Korea, Japan spar over tiny islands

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DOKDO/TAKESHIMA -- These two tiny volcanic islands, poking up from the sea like rabbit ears, can be scaled only by wooden steps that ascend almost vertically. A pulley system hauls food to a cafeteria built 300 feet above the waves. The only mailbox on the islands has a notice stenciled on the front, reminding that service will be slow because mail is picked up every two months.

"The postal box is a symbolic object," the sign reads, "implying South Korea's control."

These islands, administered by South Korea but claimed by Japan, provide a window into Asia's fastest-growing problem: the fight over small bits of land that have oversize and symbolic importance.

In the case of these islands, known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, the show of Korean control is pushed to extremes: Only two civilians live on these islands -- a fisherman and his wife -- but three South Korean telecommunications companies provide the islands with 3G cell phone service.

The notion of symbolic control has grown increasingly important in recent months amid a regionwide surge of nationalism and upcoming political leadership changes in South Korea, Japan and China. As a result, countries that once downplayed territorial disputes now use them to foment national pride. These small islands have become dangerous friction points between Asia's most economically linked countries, with all sides calling their claims irrefutable and just, and brushing aside the idea of compromise.

The fierce dispute between Japan and China over islands in the East China Sea has sparked greater fears about potential armed conflict, but the dispute over Dokdo has already levied a toll of its own. It has stalled military cooperation between Washington's two closest Asian allies and reignited historical animosities that date back to Japan's brutal, regionwide land-grab before World War II.

The South Korean central government took a dozen foreign journalists to the island Thursday to underscore its claims. The journalists started their day in Seoul at a just-opened downtown Dokdo museum and later took the three-hour flight to the islands, in time for lunch at the cafeteria, which normally serves the national police who live on Dokdo on two-month rotations.

Dokdo consists of two main islands and a handful of rocky droplets, which do little more than break waves. The taller of the two, with a razor-sharp backbone, has two residents, the fisherman and his wife, who catch octopus and live in a three-story home -- paid for by the provincial government -- along the shore.

"It's not as big as it looks," the fisherman, Kim Sung-do, said. "The top floor is all water tanks" for storing drinkable water.

The stouter of the main islands has a helicopter pad, a lighthouse, a weight room, a small branch of the South Korean national library and a dormitory. Forty-five police live on this island, as do two civil servants and three lighthouse attendants. There are no women. There is one dog, named Seodo.

The police can move almost nowhere easily. Steps, some almost twice the size of normal ones, link the docks at the bottom of the island with the living quarters. The police stand in pairs on patrol, holding guns, waiting for maritime intruders. Seventy-nine Japanese boats have circled the islands this year, the police chief said, but none has entered Korea's territorial waters.

Both Japan and Korea, in their official documents and on government websites, say that these islands are unequivocally their own, according to "international law."

"Dokdo is indeed our territory and a place worth staking our lives to defend," South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said when he visited the islands in August, a trip that stoked tensions.

"There is no doubt about the fact that Takeshima is Japan's territory," Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said weeks later.



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