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South Korea and Japan Continue Standoff over Disputed Islands

By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
The Washington Post

South Korea's Defense Ministry announced Monday that it will conduct previously canceled military exercises this week near a disputed cluster of islands between South Korea and Japan, escalating a tense standoff between the countries.

Both Japan and South Korea claim sovereignty over the desolate islands, which are located in fishing grounds about halfway between the two countries. The dispute erupted on Friday when Japanese Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda demanded that Seoul cancel plans to build a wharf on the largest of the islands.

Ikeda's statement triggered demonstrations in Seoul that included the burning of a Japanese flag. An angry South Korean President Kim Young Sam canceled a meeting with Japanese officials scheduled for Monday, threatened to scrap a summit between the two countries next month and said his government would "sternly deal with" Japan over the issue.

The tension between the United States' two strongest allies in Asia adds to the sense of turmoil in a region already nervous about China's menacing stance toward Taiwan and uncertainty over North Korea. China is indirectly involved in this dispute because fishermen in South Korea and Japan have complained that Chinese fishing boats are encroaching on their territorial waters. The islands dispute arises as Japan and South Korea are about to declare exclusive rights to fishing and minerals 200 miles from their shores.

South Korean officials announced Monday that the previously canceled quarterly military exercises near the barren islands have been reinstated because of the dispute. It said destroyers, patrol boats, anti-submarine reconnaissance planes and jet fighter would be involved in attacks on "imaginary targets" during the exercises.

South Korean newspapers reported that the country's navy and air force would be on watch to force out or capture any Japanese fishing boats that cross into South Korean territorial waters.

"It is our territory; we want to show that this island is fully in our control," Hwang Hyon Tak, a spokesman for the South Korean Embassy, said about the military exercises.