Seoul yesterday applauded a US decision to relist South Korea as owners of a group of tiny islands, amid a simmering dispute with Japan over claims to the territory.
US President George W. Bush said a US agency was reversing its week-long decision that classified in its database the chain of rocky islets as territory belonging to no country.
The original move by the Board on Geographic Names had angered South Korea, with South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo describing the move as “very regrettable.”
“As to the database, I asked [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice to review it and the database will be restored to where it was ... seven days ago,” Bush told a group of Asian reporters at the White House. Bush pointed out however that the dispute over the islets was a matter to be settled by Japan and South Korea.
Bush’s comments came ahead of his visit next week to South Korea where mass protests over a resumption of US beef imports have rocked the new government of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
South Korea hailed the latest US decision as showing “the deep trust and friendship between the leaders of the two countries.”
“This is the result of South Korea-US alliance and trust having been restored,” Seoul’s presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said in a statement.
“The exceptionally swift measure reflects President George W. Bush’s full understanding of the South Korean public sentiment and the deep trust and friendship between the leaders of the two countries,” Lee said.
Japan downplayed the decision, saying it did not believe Washington had changed its position over the islets, called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan.
“We don’t necessarily think we have to react excessively every time one organization of the US government does something,” Japanese government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura told reporters in Tokyo.
“The Japanese government does not believe that the change in this statement on the Web site reflects a change in the position taken by the United States,” Nobutaka said.
Dennis Wilder, US National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs, said Seoul contacted Washington “at very high levels” and asked it to look into the change in classification of the islets.
Bush then directed Rice “to check into this and see exactly what did happen with this change of designation.
“It was decided after that review that the change in designation was not warranted at this time,” Wilder told reporters in Washington.
“We regret that this change in designation was perceived by South Koreans as some sort of change in our policy,” Wilder said.
Bush will visit South Korea and Thailand ahead of attending the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing this month.
South Korea staged a military drill near the group of rocky and treeless islets on Wednesday, one day after the first-ever visit there by South Korea’s prime minister, to cement its claims over them.
The dispute flared again last month when Japan announced new education guidelines stressing its territorial claims to the islets.
Seoul has summoned its top envoy to Japan in protest.
While the islands are uninhabited, the dispute over their ownership is tied to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula, which remains a source of deep resentment for many Koreans.
But three South Koreans staged a sit-in protest on Thursday outside of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s office waving a national flag with a message on it written in blood.