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.