Author: Jonathan Berkshire Miller, The Diplomat
The South Korean government indicated last year that it intends to construct a significant naval base on Ulleung Island in the Sea of Japan.
The Ministry of Defence announced that it will team up with the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs to build the complex and establish a port in Ulleung capable not only of maritime defence but also of force projection. This reignited tensions between South Korea and Japan over their competing territorial claims to the Dokdo islets — known as Takeshima in Japan.
The row over the Dokdo islets has been a sticking point since the conclusion of World War II. South Korea has occupied the rocky atoll since 1954, and has consistently repudiated Tokyo’s claims to the territory. Both sides point to historical maps and treaties to prove the legitimacy of their claims. South Korea insists that Dokdo has been part of Korea since the 6th century AD, but that has been rejected by Japan, which points to maps from the 18th century AD showing the rocks as part of Japanese territory. Compounding this seemingly intractable dispute is a conflict over the naming of the sea that surrounds Dokdo. Seoul refers to the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula as the East Sea, while Tokyo labels it the Sea of Japan.
Tensions over Dokdo have heightened again recently following Seoul’s announcement that it will see through a US$1 billion commitment to secure the islets through investment in enhanced infrastructure, such as surveillance capabilities and helipads. The naval base on Ulleung Island is a significant part of this budget and is projected to cost about US$300 million. When completed, the base will be capable of housing the country’s largest warships — ironically part of the Dokdo class.
South Korea has ensured there is no ambiguity over the base’s purpose either. Chung Mi-kyung, a parliamentarian of the ruling party which viewed the report on the development, remarked that this new construction will firmly demonstrate that Dokdo is an integral part of South Korean territory. She also stressed that the base will ‘secure Korean sovereignty over Dokdo’ by ensuring that Korean naval vessels have ample time to reach the atoll in the event of hostilities.
Japan has declined to officially respond to the new plan, but has maintained its stance that the islets are an integral part of its territory. Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba emphasised this point last month, vowing that Japan would ‘not accept’ Seoul’s administration of the islands and would continue to ‘take measures’ to ensure the land is returned.
This proposal is sure to further damage the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo. Relations between the two have lagged over the past few years as a result of chronic instability within Japan’s ruling party and an edgy South Korean government that has acquiesced to its military establishment as a result of bellicose actions from North Korea. Nationalist posturing over this dispute is not uncommon and both sides have routinely used the issue to divert attention from other issues or to gain domestic political favours.
The war of words over Dokdo recommenced last July when the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to implement a one-month boycott of South Korea’s national carrier, Korean Air, by banning its diplomats from travelling with the airline. This occurred after Korean Air routed a test flight over the disputed islets. Seoul condemned the action and demanded that Japan reverse the ban. Japanese Diet members responded by planning a visit to the small islets — which never actually took place — that was also quickly condemned by the South Korean government. The tit for tat continued when Japan released its 2011 defence white paper, which declared that Dokdo was an integral part of Japanese territory. In a strange twist, North Korea exhibited a rare expression of solidarity with South Korea, noting that ‘all Koreans, with a united force, should squash the [Japanese] attempt to steal Dokdo’. While it is not surprising that the North condemned Japan — which it often has done in the past — it was interesting to see this display of unity on the issue.
Tokyo is struggling to chart an adequate policy to resolve the row, while South Korea also has a lot to lose from isolating Japan. Japan remains one of South Korea’s biggest trading partners, with more than US$40 billion worth of goods and services exchanged annually. Moreover, the two countries remain bound together — politically and geographically — against a truculent North Korea and its latent nuclear weapons program. Both sides must leave behind the domestic political gains associated with the Dokdo rhetoric and consider the implications of a strategic divide.
Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a Tokyo-based security and defence analyst on the Asia Pacific region at The Diplomat.