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Barren islets revive Seoul-Tokyo enmity

Photographs show 200 square yards of low, wind-blasted rock with a roped- off path, a South Korean flag, and a couple of shiny metal antennae. Apart from a few seagulls, their only inhabitants are a handful of Korean policemen, relieved every few weeks by naval vessels from the port of Pohang.

Far out in the Sea of Japan, 440 miles from Tokyo and 280 miles from Seoul, the Tokto islands make the Falklands look like paradise. In the past few days they have become the subject of a bitter territorial dispute, which threatens to rattle further the shaky relationship between Japan and South Korea.

The trouble has been simmering since the end of last year, and bubbled over noisily at the weekend. It began when Japan unveiled plans to ratify the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Convention defines a 200-mile economic zone within which each signatory enjoys exclusive rights to fishing, natural resources and land reclamation. Takeshima, as the islands are called in Japanese, come within Tokyo's projected zone. But, as Tokto, they fall within Seoul's as well.

"The Japanese government's stance is crystal clear: it is our indigenous territory," the Foreign Ministry said last week. This was news to the South Koreans, who have maintained an intermittent presence on the rocks since 1954. They quickly announced a new project - a jetty to be built for ships.

"Japan has once again caused an uproar in South Korea and widespread anger among South Korean people by making a preposterous claim over the Tokto islets, which are plainly an integral part of South Korea's territory," President Kim Young Sam's spokesman declared yesterday.

The islands are at the centre of rich fishing grounds and, geologists suspect, significant mineral and oil deposits - both important considerations for two industrialised countries nervously conscious of their lack of natural resources. But, as Mr Kim's nationalistic rhetoric makes clear, this dispute is as much symbolic as it is practical.

Throughout their histories, relations between the two neighbours have been delicate. Last year, during the 50th anniversary commemorations of the end of the war against Japan, a Japanese minister lost his job after suggesting that Japan had achieved "good things" during its 35-year colonial rule over Korea.

He was by no means the first: the Tokto/Takeshima dispute is the latest manifestation of an ancient enmity and, given the strength of emotions on both sides, it is difficult to see how it can be quickly resolved.

President Kim's New Korea Party faces testing parliamentary elections in April, and a general election is expected in Japan before the end of the year. Both Mr Kim and the Japanese Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, have much to gain politically by a show of resolve over the islands.