SEOUL (AFP) — Seoul applauded Thursday 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.
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 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 come ahead of his visit next week to South Korea where mass protests over a resumption of US beef imports has rocked the newly elected government of 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."
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 organisation 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 website reflects a change in the position taken by the United States."
Dennis Wilder, 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."
Bush will visit South Korea and Thailand ahead of attending the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing on August 8.
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 this month when Japan announced new education guidelines stressing its territorial claims to the islets.
Seoul has summoned its top envoy to Japan in protest.
The territorial row originates in Japan's 20th century imperial expansion and its colonisation of the Korean peninsula.
Japan claimed the islands in 1905 after winning a war with Russia. It went on to annex the entire Korean peninsula from 1910 until its defeat in 1945 at the end of World War II. Seoul now plans to make them livable for people.
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