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Japanese and South Korean negotiators raced Thursday to avert a clash over disputed islets as Seoul accused Tokyo of neocolonial ambitions and warned of a possible high seas confrontation.

Behind-the-scenes talks on a diplomatic solution came even as tensions mounted over a Japanese plan to survey the seabed near the islets, known as Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea, which has effectively controlled them since 1954.

The crisis prompted South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon to summon Japanese Ambassador Shotaro Oshima early Thursday to demand a halt to the project. Oshima rejected the same request on April 14 when he was summoned to the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry by South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Yu Myung Hwan.

Some 20 South Korean gunboats have been dispatched to the area in anticipation of the arrival of Japan Coast Guard survey ships. The South Korean vessels were slated to conduct high seas seizure drills Thursday, but delayed the exercises due to bad weather, said Jang Soo Pyo of the South Korean Coast Guard.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Choo Kyu Ho meanwhile warned of a clear possibility of a physical clash and said Japan held the “key” to whether conflict erupts.

The South Korean protests were underscored by President Roh Moo Hyun, who accused Tokyo of harboring imperialistic ambitions.

The territorial tiff strikes an especially raw nerve in South Korea, where many consider Japan’s claim a leftover from Tokyo’s harsh 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

“There are some people claiming territorial rights to former colonies that were once acquired through a war of aggression,” Roh said in a prepared speech at a breakfast prayer meeting of Christian leaders in Seoul.

“We are now in a difficult situation,” Roh said. “Problems cannot be solved just by goodwill, and we need wisdom and courage.”

Government officials in Tokyo continued efforts to defuse diplomatic tensions with Seoul over a disputed area in the Sea of Japan, but were unable to find a way to break the stalemate Thursday evening.

Tokyo was also considering dispatching Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi to Seoul for diplomatic talks, but Seoul did not accept the proposal, Foreign Ministry sources said.

During the diplomatic talks, Japan had reportedly said Tokyo would cancel the seabed survey if South Korea drops its plan to propose Korean names for submarine features there during an international conference to decide hydrographic names in June in Germany.

But top South Korean officials rejected the proposal Thursday, making the situations tougher for Tokyo officials seeking a diplomatic solution.

Japan planned to collect geographical data and prepare counterproposals for Japanese names, after seeing Seoul’s bid to register Korean names.

Given Japan’s claims on the Takeshima islets and surrounding EEZ, Seoul’s proposals for Korean names would be totally unacceptable, government officials claimed.

Under the current plan, the JCG ships would survey and record submarine features by using sonar. The survey, if launched, could be finished in a week under the best weather conditions, JCG officials said.