South Korean singer swims into island dispute with Japan

Story highlights

  • South Korean singer Kim Jang-hoon leading dozens of swimmers to Dokdo or Takeshima
  • The rocky islets are at the center of a territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan
  • Swimmers will arrive Wednesday, on the 67th anniversary of Korean independence
  • Follows President Lee's visit to the islands Friday, prompting angry response from Japan

A famous South Korean rock singer is just hours away from swimming into the diplomatic row over a small group of rocky islets in the East Sea, or the Sea of Japan.

Kim Jang-hoon is among dozens of amateur athletes who left the eastern port of Uljin Monday, bound for Dokdo, a largely uninhabited set of volcanic islands claimed by both South Korea and Japan, known by Tokyo as Takeshima.

The group's 55-hour, 230-kilometer relay swim is expected to end Wednesday, on the 67th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japanese colonial rule.

Before jumping into the water, singer Kim Jang-Hoon told reporters: "I will never make such a comment as 'Dokdo is our territory' when I arrive there. It's meaningless to do so because they are undeniably our territory," according to the Yonhap news agency.

The politically-charged event comes days after Lee Myung-Bak broke with convention to become the first South Korean president to visit the contested islands.

Read more: What's behind island dispute?

"Dokdo is indeed our territory and a place worth staking our lives to defend. Let's make sure to safeguard (the islets) with pride," he was reported to have told police officers stationed on the islands.

Lee's visit inflamed Japan which recalled its ambassador to Seoul, Masatoshi Muto, and threatened to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice.

"President Lee visited Takeshima, which is an inherent territory of Japan, both in the light of historical facts and based on international law. Therefore it is incompatible with the position of Japan, and so I made a strong protest on the matter," Japanese foreign minister Koichiro Gemba told a press conference Friday.

Read more: Man crashes Japanese embassy over disputed islands

Japan has long claimed the islets as its territory, but Seoul said all Korean territory was returned after the country won independence from colonial rule by Japan in 1945.

According to a South Korean website on the islands, Dokdo has a population of three and amid the craggy rocks sit a lighthouse, lodge, helicopter landing pad, and a police station manned by South Korean officers.

The recent flare-up over who owns the islands even spilled onto soccer the pitch during the final days of the London Olympics.

At the request of Japan, the International Olympic Commitee withheld the bronze medal from South Korean player Park Jongwoo after he held a banner during post-match celebrations supporting South Korea's ownership of the islands.

An official from the Korean Football Association told CNN that the body had been asked to investigate the case by FIFA, soccer's ruling body, and submit its results by Thursday.

"It is proven from photos that Park's action was not intentional. He didn't make the sign," the official told CNN. "As you can see from photos, a fan was holding the sign during the match and Park got it from the fan."

Dokdo/Takeshima is one of several of disputed island chains in the region and fears are emerging that competing territorial claims in the South China Sea could create a new Cold War in Asia.

China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have claims in the area and tensions have risen in recent months.

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