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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pacific Islets Fire Old Disputes

TOKYO -- They are remote and uninhabited. But it seems every coastal Asian nation has a claim on one group or another of these Pacific islets, reefs and rocks, and many of the disputes have been heating up. Fishing rights and the promise of oil make them worth the bother, but experts warn of a less tangible ingredient common to all -- nationalism.

The latest dispute is over islets that South Korea calls Dokdo and Japan calls Takeshima. South Korea has physically occupied them since the 1950s. It maintains that its hold on the outcroppings, which are surrounded by rich fishing grounds, was settled when the two nations normalized relations in 1965.

But to generate support for Japan's claim, a local assembly on the Japanese coast nearest the islets voted to make Feb. 22 "Takeshima Day." The move sparked an immediate and emotional backlash. In March, protesters gathered daily outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and across South Korea, singing their national anthem and burning Japanese flags. A man and a woman each cut off a finger, and another man tried to set himself on fire. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun warned the dispute could lead to a "diplomatic war."

Some Japanese accuse the Koreans of buttressing their claim on the islets by tapping into lingering anti-Japanese feeling over a whole host of issues stemming from Japan's often brutal colonization of the Korean peninsula from 1910-45.

"The Korean government has traditionally used nationalism to control its people," said Shigeki Hakamada, a Tokyo professor of international politics. "[Takeshima] fits right into this pattern."