* UPDATE: South Korean media report that the team of swimmers reached the islands at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday — six and a half hours ahead of schedule. The entire relay reportedly took 48 hours and 30 minutes.
Tensions are rising once again over the tiny islands, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, and claimed by both countries, with the latest spat coming at a bizarre intersection of pop culture, sports and politics. This week dozens of South Koreans are holding a relay swim of 220 km from the South Korean coast to the islands in order to reassert the nation’s sovereignty over the disputed territory. The swimmers, led by pop singer Kim Jang-hoon, are scheduled to arrive in the early afternoon of Aug. 15 — a day that marks the 67th anniversary of South Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule. Their swim follows a visit last Friday by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak — the first ever by the country’s top leader — which prompted Japan to summon the South Korean ambassador in Tokyo and to recall its top diplomat from Seoul. Japan also suggested that it might take the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice.
The islands are located in the gulf between the two countries — known as the Sea of Japan by Japanese and the East Sea by South Koreans — and are about the same distance from each. Seoul and Tokyo have been playing tug-of-war over the ownership of the islets for decades; South Korea stationed a coast-guard detachment on the islands in 1954 and has administered the islets since then. Despite their size, ownership of the islands is important for more than just national pride; they lie in rich fishing grounds and are near a seabed that could contain vast natural-gas deposits.
The latest dispute flared up late last week at the Olympics, when Korean soccer player Park Jong-woo displayed a political sign saying “Dokdo Is Our Territory” after the country won the bronze-medal match against Japan. The International Olympic Committee, which prohibits political statements by athletes, withheld his medal, barred him from participating in the medal ceremony and asked the football-governing body, FIFA, to discipline him.