SEOUL (AFP) — South Korea summoned Japan's ambassador Monday in a row over who owns a disputed set of islands that could damage efforts to rebuild a relationship untainted by bitter wartime memories.
Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan delivered a message of warning and protest via ambassador Toshinori Shigeie after reports that Tokyo would describe the islets as "Japanese territory" in a revised school curriculum handbook.
The two tiny islands -- known by the Japanese as Takeshima and as Dokdo by Koreans -- are rugged, treeless and cover a total area of just 18.7 hectares (46 acres).
Nevertheless, they have long been an irritant in ties between South Korea and former colonial master Japan, with both sides claiming sovereignty.
"We delivered a message of strong concern before it escalates into a serious (diplomatic) row," Yu said after the meeting, and vowed stronger action if the reports are confirmed.
"The (Seoul) government will sternly deal with any attempt to undermine our ownership," he told reporters.
Japan's top government spokesman attempted to defuse the row, insisting no decision had been taken by either the education ministry or the government on the issue.
"We have no intention of significantly politicising the Takeshima issue," Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said.
"The leaders (of Japan and South Korea) have agreed to improve relations while working on issues in a forward-looking manner."
Seoul, which says its claim goes back centuries, stations a small unit of maritime police on the islands, which are situated in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).
Tokyo claimed them in 1905 after winning a war with Russia, and went on to annex the entire Korean peninsula from 1910 until its 1945 defeat in World War II.
The Japanese reports said the education ministry would describe the islets as an "integral part" of Japan in guidelines which, while non-binding, would serve as guidance for teachers and textbook publishers.
South Korea's Yu said that if the reports were confirmed, it would damage efforts to develop better relations.
He said he had also called for Japan's "quick correction" of any attempt to violate South Korea's territorial sovereignty.
Yu said ambassador Shigeie responded by saying there had been no official decision and promising to convey Seoul's position.
The row could damage efforts by new South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to turn a new page in relations with Japan.
Lee, who took office in February, visited Tokyo two months later and said after talks with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda that their nations "must not let the past hamper moves towards the future."
However, conservative lawmakers in Fukuda's ruling party have intensified pressure on the ministry to describe the islets as Japanese.
Lee told the foreign ministry "to strongly ask Japan to rectify" its actions if the media reports are confirmed, his spokesman said.
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