Features | Security | East Asia

Japan and South Korea’s Rocky Row

Reports that Japan is considering taking the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute to the ICJ risk further inflaming tensions with South Korea. Neither side seems likely to give in.

Japan and South Korea’s Rocky Row
Credit: Courtney Bolton

Questions over their status keep rearing their head. Known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, this nondescript, rocky group of islets seems to garner far more attention than their tiny size would seem to justify.

Yet in South Korea, year after year, every perceived slight by the Japanese ‘colonizers’ is pored over in the media in near-microscopic detail. Such incidents are usually followed by the Japanese ambassador of the moment being summoned to the South Korean Foreign Ministry for ‘clear the air’ talks, with the usual rebuke securing blanket coverage in the nightly news.

In Japan, coverage tends to be a little more subtle. As claimants but not occupiers of the islets, moves to bolster Japanese claims usually involve the publication in school textbooks of the country’s rights to Dokdo/Takeshima. And few other moves rile the Koreans in quite the same way. And, just as the two can’t agree on a name for the islets, they also can’t agree on the name of the sea that surrounds the area – the Koreans refer to the body of water separating their peninsula from Japan as the East Sea. For the Japanese, it is the Sea of Japan.

But more recently, the two sides have grown increasingly petty. First, the Japanese government barred officials from flying with South Korean national flag carrier Korean Air in protest at the airline’s flyover of the atolls – during which the aircraft used to launch the Airbus A380 into the company’s fleet reportedly tipped its wing at Dokdo/Takeshima. In response, the Korean government said it would ban a planned trip by Japanese lawmakers to the nearest sovereign territory, Ulleung-do, which was supposed to be part of a fact-finding mission over the dispute.

Few observers would have been left in any doubt as to the message behind the flyover. Yet, the Japanese reaction was widely interpreted as unnecessary. Indeed, the Koreans said as much officially. ‘The Japanese measure, regarded as a sort of sanction against a private company, can hardly be understood,’ South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae told a gathering of reporters.

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In Japan, meanwhile, the decision to stop the lawmakers from visiting the islets was roundly condemned.  ‘It will close the door to the resolution of this issue if Seoul remains intolerant over the trip,’ Shigeru Ishiba, the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party's policy research council chairman, said in a press conference, according to Kyodo News.

So why all the fuss? Both countries claim a long history of ownership over the islets. In a more modern sense, the end of World War II and Japan’s surrender and relinquishment of its colonial grip on Korea left Dokdo in a kind of legal limbo. An agreement could never be fully rendered over which country should assume sovereignty. South Korea maintains a police and civilian presence on the islets, occupying the territory since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

A flavour of the Korean claim emerges every year when The Korea Times, one of South Korea’s leading English-language newspapers, hold its annual Dokdo essay competition. This year, the winning entry declared Korea’s claim over the outcrop – made up of the eastern islet Dongdo and the western Seodo as well as other surrounding rocks – as dating back as far as 512.

Entrants had been asked to explore the question: ‘Was Japan’s incorporation of Dokdo to Shimane Prefecture in 1905 legitimate or an act of aggression?’

‘The name of the island has changed over time, a testament to the historical confusion over the subject, which led to today’s dispute between Korea and Japan,’ wrote Felix Filnkoessl, a student in Salzburg, Austria. ‘The Island was first recorded as part of Korea in a document generated during the Silla Dynasty in 512.

‘An official publication called the “History of the Three Kingdoms,” written in 1145, refers to the conquest of Usanguk, an area that included Dokdo.’

He cites ‘numerous’ documents from across the centuries in support of the claim. ‘For example,’ writes Klinkoessl, ‘in 1870, Japanese officials dispatched to Korea submitted a report to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the reasons why Ulleungdo and Dokdo belonged to Korea.’

The competition, set up by the newspaper in conjunction with the Seoul-based Northeast Asian History Foundation, is said to be ‘aimed at exploring Korea’s and Japan’s claims, and the root cause of the territorial dispute over the rocky islets sitting halfway between the two neighbouring countries.’ Yet, the weight of the winning entries – including Filnoessl’s winning essay as well as two ‘silver’ prize winners and three ‘bronze’ awards – appeared to side with the Korean claim.

In Japan, the argument over its claimed sovereignty rests on passage rights that date back to the 17th century. ‘Japan established the sovereignty of Takeshima by the beginning of the Edo Period, in the mid-17th century at the very latest,’ says an outline of the issue on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

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Whatever the historical claims, though, the key to all of this now is what likely lurks below the surface of the sea surrounding the islets: plentiful marine life and, perhaps more crucially, gas deposits.

Despite South Korea’s relative comfort in the worldwide economic dynamic, regional security issues and a paucity of natural resources are apparently fuelling the potential for more territorial disputes at a time when Asia is already witnessing growing tensions over disputed islands in the South China Sea.

In early July, for example, the South Korean government declared its intention to submit to the United Nations a petition for an extension to the seabed beyond the reach of its exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea. It was anticipated they would claim that the Korean Peninsula’s naturally extended continental shelf stretches to the Okinawa Trough in the East China Sea. That would mean a zone extending beyond the statutory 200 nautical miles prescribed for EEZs. However, China also claims the same distinction.

This move, though, came with warnings that the manoeuvre could re-ignite territorial disputes with the neighbouring nations in whose shadow the tiny peninsula of Korea has forever lived: China and, of course, Japan. Like Dokdo, it’s believed to be an area rich in natural resources, in this case natural gas and oil deposits.

In the case of Ieodo – a submerged rock under the surface of the East China Sea in an area not too far removed from the Okinawa Trough – at issue is not so much a territorial dispute as disputed occupation. The case came into sharp focus late last month when China reportedly raised objections about South Korea bidding to raise a shipwreck from beneath the surface near the rock.

In an article carried by the Korea Herald, some clarity over the case emerged. ‘Ieodo is not a disputed territory and both South Korea and China are aware that this submerged rock in the East China Sea cannot be claimed by either side,’ the newspaper reported the South Korean Foreign Ministry as saying. ‘The ministry unofficially announced its position as news reports unveiled China had recently renewed its territorial claim over Ieodo by demanding South Korea halt its work to hoist a sunken commercial ship near the rock.

‘Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which stipulates that a submerged rock cannot be claimed as territory by any country, South Korea and China agreed not to dispute the ownership of Ieodo. South Korea effectively maintains control of Ieodo, which is closer to Korea than any other country. It is located 149 kilometres southwest of Korea’s southernmost island of Marado and 247 kilometres northeast of the nearest Chinese island Tongdao.’ Still, as a possible indication of South Korea’s intentions, it maintains an observation and meteorological outpost on top of the rock.

The Dokdo/Takeshima affair, though, doesn’t look likely to be resolved nearly as easily, despite a touching respite following the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March. Known as ‘comfort women,’ a group of World War II-era Japanese sex slaves paused a weekly protest against Japan outside the country’s embassy in Seoul to stage a vigil for the victims of the disaster. The moment of repose, though, was temporary, and the gathering reverted to demonstration in later weeks.

And the issue looks like it is only going to get trickier, at least if a recent Chosun Ilbo article is anything to go by. ‘More right-wing Japanese lawmakers want to visit Korea to draw attention to Tokyo's dubious claim to the Dokdo islets,’ reported the leading Korean-language daily. ‘LDP lawmakers Katsuei Hirasawa and Hakubun Shimomura have now pledged to visit Ulleung Island in September after the regular session of the Japanese Diet comes to an end, the Japanese press reported on Wednesday. Shimomura urged all LDP lawmakers to take turns visiting Ulleung.’

This week, meanwhile, Japan’s Sankei Shimbun reported that the Japanese government is again considering submitting the Dokdo islets issue to the International Court of Justice, a move that is bound to infuriate many in South Korea.

This dispute, it seems, is set to run and run.

Bryan Kay is a Seoul-based writer.