SEOUL - South Korea and Japan have temporarily suspended a military exchange programme (MEP) amid a territorial row over a set of disputed islands, defence officials said Monday. Japanese naval and air force commanders suspended trips to South Korea which had been scheduled to start on Monday as part of a military exchange programme, the South’s defence ministry said. South Korea will also suspend similar trips to Japan by its commanders, a ministry spokesman told AFP. “The move is temporary, reflecting strained ties between the two countries,” he said.

The current dispute is over ownership of South Korean-controlled islands in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.

Ministry officials said the row could affect other military exchange and cooperation programmes if tensions escalate further.

Relations between the two sides have deteriorated since South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak made a surprise visit to the islands on August 10.

He said his trip, the first by a South Korean president, was intended to press Japan to settle grievances left over from its 1910-1945 colonial rule over Korea.

Lee further angered Japan by saying later that Emperor Akihito must sincerely apologise for past excesses should he wish to visit South Korea.

Japan cancelled a finance ministers’ meeting scheduled for this month and said it would review a foreign exchange swap agreement with Seoul, as the rift threatened to spill over into economic ties.

Tokyo has also hinted it could freeze plans to buy South Korean government bonds under an agreement reached in May.

South Korea last week formally rejected Japan’s proposal that the two countries ask an international court to settle the dispute.