4. Dokdo/Takeshima islands
Roughly equidistant between the Korean peninsula and the main Japanese island of Honshu, the islands lie closest to the small Korean island of Ulleung, and are now under South Korean control.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Koreans claim that Dokdo has been theirs for 1,500 years, when a Korean king ordered the incorporation of Ulleung and Usando (the old name for Dokdo). The islands are marked on 16th century Korean maps.
Japanese maps from the 18th century paint a contrasting picture, since they include the islands within Japan’s Shimane Prefecture. However, a Japanese official document from a century earlier mentions Takeshima as falling beyond the limit of Japanese territory. Japan’s claim to historic ownership is certainly undermined by the fact that Tokyo formally annexed Takeshima in 1905 on the basis that it was terra nullius, before going on to annex Korea itself in 1910. At the time the Koreans did not object, although Seoul has subsequently argued that it had been in too weak a position to stand up to the Japanese.
After World War II, control of the Dokdo islands was handed back to South Korea. However, as with the Senkaku Islands, Japan claims that it was not bound to return Takeshima under the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty since it had not taken the islands as the spoils of war, but rather had annexed them as empty geographical features. Japan has always appeared confident on this point, repeatedly offering to take the case to the ICJ – a course it has never been open to where the Senkakus are concerned. The Koreans have subsequently argued that since the Korean War was raging at the time, they were too preoccupied to notice that Dodko was not expressly mentioned in the San Francisco Peace Treaty.
Tentative conclusions: Japan’s claim is undermined by the fact that it took over Takeshima at a time of significant relative strength over Korea, which had long regarded Dokdo as a Korean possession and not as terra nullius. But if the Koreans have such a strong case, it is strange that they don’t accept Japan’s repeated offer of international arbitration.