South Korea and Japan: Disputes over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands

Authors: Dong-Joon Park and Danielle Chubb, Pacific Forum CSIS, Honolulu

South Korea and Japan both consider the islands, known alternatively as Dokdo (Korea) and Takeshima (Japan), as part of their own respective territories.

The dispute over them has been a spoiler, on and off, over the course of their bilateral relationship.

In June, the Japanese government forbade its foreign ministry staff from using Korean Airlines for a month. This was in response to the airline company’s decision to conduct the inaugural flight of its A380 passenger jet above the isles.

More recently, South Korea denied entry to three Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers attempting to visit the disputed islands. This attempt by the LDP lawmakers’ to enter ‘Dokdo’, via South Korea, was long anticipated and the Lee Myung-bak government in Seoul had advised the conservative Japanese politicians to refrain from visiting, given the heated nationalistic response it would elicit throughout South Korea.

On the face of it, the two countries have every reason to overcome this seemingly petty territorial dispute and come to an agreement over resource sharing in their neighbouring waters. Given how much there is at stake in Northeast Asia — North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, rivalry between the US and China, latent military hostilities across the Taiwan Strait — the two countries would do well to move past the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute. South Korea and Japan should instead focus on the big picture of peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

But to try to understand ROK–Japan relations by focusing on the dynamics of the contemporary relationship is to get things upside down. Add an entanglement of historical regional resentments and an important truth emerges: from the South Korean perspective, the dispute over these rocky outcrops is the big picture.

The emotional potency of the Dokdo issue in South Korea reveals just how powerful historical memory is. This issue brings together all Koreans, no matter what their political inclination — a rare occurrence in a country which is itself deeply ideologically and politically divided.

Because of this historical memory, Korea is unwilling to take this dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). From the South Korean perspective, losing Dokdo would be akin to legitimising Japanese colonial rule. Koreans think that as long as they have effective jurisdiction there is no point taking the risk of losing the islands. And, more importantly, taking the case to the ICJ would appear to validate Japanese claims to the islands.

For Koreans, the most recent incident evokes strong nationalist sentiments and lingering resentment over the war crimes committed by the Japanese during their occupation of the peninsula. So while outsiders counsel calm and meeting halfway, this will be a very difficult sell for the Lee Myung-bak government under current circumstances.

It is important to understand the strong emotional significance of the islands and the role that national identity plays in both countries, particularly in Korea. Any concessions on the part of Korean lawmakers are unlikely and would be akin to political suicide. Likewise, it is improbable that Japan will simply stand back from the dispute and hand over sovereignty. It is also clear that, for as long as the two countries remain unable to even begin public conversations over the matter, diplomatic relations will improve only very slowly, if at all.

Conversations need to begin and must go straight to the core of the issue: an acknowledgement of how deeply the Japanese occupation of Korea strikes at the heart of national identity in that country, and the symbolic role that the Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute plays in this.

A solution may be for Japan to take the first step and acknowledge that Korean claims to the territory are closely linked to historical resentments. Japan’s annexation of the islands was among the first in a series of actions that led to the colonisation of the peninsula. Korean outrage to Japan’s on-going claims to the territory has everything to do with this and little to do with Japan’s legal historical arguments on the matter. The South Korean government must be able to demonstrate to its citizens that Japan is not ignoring the link between South Korea’s claims to the islands and the 20th century colonisation of their country. Only then can the leadership in Seoul stop the reactive decision-making and make bold and brave efforts to shift the domestic conversation toward a broader viewpoint on how to move forward with the ROK–Japan relationship. After all, cooperation between these two countries is in the best interest of the entire region.

Danielle Chubb, PhD, is Resident Vasey Research Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS, Honolulu. Dong-Joon Park is Resident Kelly Research Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS, Honolulu.


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  • Ross

    The most commonsense article I’ve read about these troublesome, yet highly interesting rocks (!) The next most commonsense piece I’ve read hints that possession may be 9/10 of the law (based on legal/historic precedent – compared to similar situations around the globe). As Korea has occupied the islets for 50-odd years, they have done more to stake their claim to ownership than Japan. But, both countries really need to put this island issue behind them.

    • There are many problems with this article.

      First, the Japanese lawmarkers did not go to Korea to visit “Dokdo” (Takeshima). They went there to visit the Dokdo Museum on the Korean island of Ulleungdo, which is about ninety kilometers northwest of “Dokdo.” The museum houses maps and documents that Koreans say support their claim to “Dokdo.” The Japanese stated that they had no intention of visiting the disputed islets.

      Second, Korea refuses to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) not because Koreans have some “powerful historical memory” of Japanese colonial rule, but because Korea has no maps or documents to support any historical claim to “Dokdo.” In other words, Korea knows the ICJ would rule against her.

      The reason Korea has no maps or documents is that her claims were all fabricated shortly after World War II with the hope that she would be able to gain Japanese territory, which included not only “Dokdo” but also the Japanese island of Tsushima. The United States, however, rejected Korea’s claims. In an August 9, 1951 letter to the Korean ambassador, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote the following.

      “As regards the island of Dokdo, otherwise known as Takeshima or Liancourt Rocks, this normally uninhabited rock formation was according to our information never treated as part of Korea and, since about 1905, has been under the jurisdiciton of the Oki Islands Branch of Shimane Prefecture of Japan. The island does not appear ever before to have been claimed by Korea….”

      Korea never even attempted to provide the US with evidence to support her claim. Instead, Korean President Syngman Rhee simply declared “Dokdo” Korean territory after the 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan, which allowed Japan to keep the island.

      After visiting the Far East in 1954, US Special Mission Ambassador James Van Fleet wrote the following in his post-mission report:

      “The Island of Dokto (otherwise called Liancourt and Take Shima) is in the Sea of Japan approximately midway between Korea and Honshu (131.80E, 36.20N). This Island is, in fact, only a group of barren, uninhabited rocks. When the Treaty of Peace with Japan was being drafted, the Republic of Korea asserted its claims to Dokto but the United States concluded that they remained under Japanese sovereignty and the Island was not included among the Islands that Japan released from its ownership under the Peace Treaty. The Republic of Korea has been confidentially informed of the United States position regarding the islands but our position has not been made public. Though the United States considers that the islands are Japanese territory, we have declined to interfere in the dispute. Our position has been that the dispute might properly be referred to the International Court of Justice and this suggestion has been informally conveyed to the Republic of Korea.”

      While Korea has no old maps showing “Dokdo,” by any name, or any documents showing that Koreans ever visited the islets before the Japanese started taking them there as deckhands on Japanese fishing boats in the early 1900s, Japan has maps of the islets dating back to the 1600s and documents clearly describing them. Also, Japan officially incorporated “Takeshima” (Dokdo) into Shimane Prefecture in February 1905, after receiving a 1904 request to do so by a Japanese fisherman who was using the islets to capture and process sea lions.

      The incorporation of Takeshima had nothing to do with the colonization of Korea. The islets were just a small group of rocks that had little or no strategic value and were not a part of Korea, so it is wrong for the writers of the article to write that “Japan’s annexation of the islands was among the first in a series of actions that led to the colonization of the peninsula.”

      Korean “outrage” over Japanese claims to “Dokdo” is the result of about sixty years of fabricated Korean propaganda. It is not Japan who refuses to discuss the issues in the dispute; it is Korea. To solve the problem, Korean historians need to start telling the truth about the history of “Dokdo.”

      • Han KIM

        I agree that the article is not perfect. To deepen your understanding of the situation I would like to give some additional information to think about.
        First, yes the Japanese lawmakers did not state that they would be visiting Dokdo but even you have to agree that it was a political stunt to attract attention, which is the reason why the Koreans protested. Think about the Americans’ response to the proposal to build a Mosque near ground zero. People are emotional beings.
        Second, I agree with the article in that Dokdo signifies a reminder of Japanese colonial times and as far as Koreans are concerned it is not only economic incentives that are at work but pride and nationalism. People that have never been colonized cannot really understand this mentality similar to how a popular person cannot understand the circumstance of an unpopular person. Colonialism, especially when it was as brutal as was the Japanese, digs deep into people’s emotions. Think of the African American’s response to racism or slavery, it is not just a word.
        About maps and documents, Korea does have many documents but I would agree we probably do not have as many maps. This is because of our culture and economic situation. For some reason, during the Joseon dynasty it was shunned to make maps and it was believed to be dangerous for the country.As an example, one of the makers of Korea’s most accurate maps ‘Daedongyeojijeondo’ was jailed for treason. Then in the early 1900s Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, do you think it had the resources to go around and make maps? You need to understand the limitations of developing countries. Do you think countries like the DRC and Burundi, the two poorest countries in the world at present have detailed maps of their country made by them? In the 1900s, even on the main peninsula, most personal property was not documented because it never needed to be documented. One of the main methods Japanese colonial rulers used to confiscate land was exploiting this fact that Koreans did not have documentation, another reason why Koreans are angered. As far as Koreans were concerned Dokdo was visible from Ulleng island and hence was never needed to document. When applying international law, one needs to consider these limitations of developing countries. Isn’t that why international law incorporates customary law? If I find an island somewhere near Somalia, which is currently struggling to form a government and so probably does not have time to go around making maps, that is visible from the mainland and find it was not documented and mapped by Somalia, can I claim it is mine? No, you need to consider the country’s current situation.
        As for your comment, ‘While Korea has no old maps showing “Dokdo,” by any name, or any documents showing that Koreans ever visited the islets before the Japanese started taking them there as deckhands on Japanese fishing boats in the early 1900s’ Why do you think that Koreans did not go to the islands before the Japanese took them. The island is only 90 kms away. Do you think Korea did not have that kind of technology that it could not go to an island? Dokdo is visible to the naked eye. Any curious person would have gone there. As for historic documents, we have documents going back to the sixth century that shoes Unified Shilla claimed the islands.
        The gist of my argument is that when applying international law and claims on territory one needs to consider a country’s situation at the time. Civilizations are created and developed on different norms, institutions, and culture. Using one’s own institutions to claim another’s property, especially when the other is not aware of it, is dangerous and can justify colonialism all over again.
        Japan and Korea have an ugly history that clouds many current issues. Yes, Koreans may need to be more rational and argue using more accepted logic but at the same time Japanese need to be rational and think back at the pain and suffering they caused the Korean people. As an analogy, if your neighbour came on to your property, took over your house, stripped it of all its valuables, tortured and killed your family, took your brothers to war, and made your sister into a sex slave, what would you do? As a civilized rational being you contact the police instead of doing the same thing in vengeance. But when they come back and claim that a small corner of your property that you never thought of fencing is theirs, what do you do? Is it the claim of that small corner what makes you angry? Do you blame yourself for not fencing it and turn it over to the people that killed your family? It may be a extreme example but, as a Korean, this is how this whole issue looks to us. Think about it from that perspective.

        • Kay

          Well said… It is good to see an inside P. perspective on the issue.

      • Thank you for calling it “Dokdo”.

  • The Dokdo/Takeshima dispute has two main contributing factors: the hurt nationalist sentiments (colonial past) and the current struggle for resources (fishery and natural gas). To resolve the problem, a compromise should be achieved. Dokdo/Takeshima must become a joint exploration and exploitation area, where Koreans and Japanese should collaborate for the benefit of their respective nations. There is a growing number of examples where such approach works (i.e. Russia has recently resolved its long-standing territorial disputes with China and Norway). Economic collaboration would ultimately lead to the true reconciliation between Korea and Japan.

  • k

    Why does Korea cling onto ancient history?
    Is it their nationality?
    Don’t they know the word “forgiveness”?
    Japan doesn’t hold grudge about the atomic bomb to the US because they know it is past, and the people have changed. what is the point of blaming the new generations whom were not get involved?

    Japan has been giving millions of dollars to Korea to support the economy. It seems like they want to blame Japan so they can gain some profit.

    • Florence

      I agree.. everyone must look forward, not backwards.

    • Sarah

      Koreans could say the same about Japan too… it all depends on your perspective.

    • hihonmusume

      I agree.
      The problem is that those issues were discussed between Japan and Korea and created and signed the treaty including all the issues Korean brought up 60 years later. Korea accepted and signed the treaty and received the money, knowledge, skills from Japan to develop the present Korea. If they want to start from the blank phase, they would need to return all they have received from Japan and then, they could abandon the treaty. Then, it would be fair. In the current situation, Korea presents unreasonable and irrational request because they appear to just want more money from Japan without acknowledging the international treaty after the war between two nations. This is an insult not only to Japan, but also to the Korea itself.

  • John Kim

    I am Korean American. I wish this could be settled in a way that Koreans and Japanese do not hate each other. There are too many other problems that both Koreans and Japanese need to face together. Like the racism from white Americans in America towards East Asians (Japan AND Korea)