The Debate

Dokdo and South Korean National Identity

Bringing the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute to the ICJ will need a change of national identity narrative in South Korea.

Dokdo and South Korean National Identity
Credit: Republic of Korea via

In May this year, Jonathan Berkshire Miller argued in The Diplomat that a joint petition made by South Korea and Japan to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) may be the most feasible solution to the ongoing dispute over the Dokdo Islands (known in Japan as the Takeshima). There are certain to be potential benefits should such a move be successful, namely a rules-based resolution to territorial disputes in Northeast Asia and the promotion of enhanced Korea-Japan cooperation. Nevertheless, greater attention must be paid to a number of domestic structural factors that shape South Korea’s stance on the issue, as such factors illustrate how difficult South Korean decision-makers will find it to go ahead with such a bold move.

The disputed islets are at the very core of Korean collective self-understanding and national identity. These tiny high sea outcroppings are viewed as a symbol of Korea’s colonization, as they were the first pieces of Korean territory to be annexed by the Japanese Empire on February 22, 1905. In this way, de facto sovereignty over Dokdo represents the recovered sovereignty by the Korean nation, a former colony turned economic powerhouse/middle power. The symbolic value of Dokdo constitutes as much of a difference to the “other,” Japan, as it does to the “past me,” Joseon Korea of 1905, a nation weak enough to fall prey to colonialism. Modern Korea will not lose Dokdo a second time.

Calls for South Korean leaders to show “rational cool-headedness” or “strategic thinking” towards Japan over the Dokdo issue reduce this core aspect of national identity to mere emotions, anti-Japanese sentiment, and politically motivated “Japan bashing.” Indeed, such calls overestimate the power of South Korean decision-makers, given that any diplomatic, political or legal concession over the Dokdo issue will be deemed an unpatriotic move completely out of place with domestic norms and values. Dokdo is one of the most important focal points of the national post-colonial imagination, and acknowledging it as a “territorial dispute” is simply not a policy option.

Still, there are key national interests at stake for Seoul for which cooperation and coordination with Japan is crucial. Any diplomatic stoush arising between Tokyo and Seoul comes at a cost, as the political fallout can hinder bilateral communication and cooperation in other policy fields. The carefully crafted image of Korea’s national brand and soft power can only be weakened by what is seen from the outside as anti-Japanese nationalist sentiment and political opportunism. Diplomatic and financial resources might be better directed at addressing substantive historical issues, like the longstanding “comfort women” sex slave issue or a joint production of history school textbooks, rather than to a Dokdo-related global campaign, and responding to every provocation made by Japan.

If South Korean decision-makers wish to reclaim agency in a discourse in which they are very much driven by national identity concerns, they must show a different kind of leadership. If Seoul is genuinely committed to improving opportunities for South Korean-Japanese cooperation (recent polls indicate South Koreans still view Dokdo as the biggest hindrance here), they would be well advised to not to circumvent the Dokdo issue, but to actively address it under a different national narrative.

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This alternative national imagining may be found in what former President Lee Myung-bak termed “Global Korea,” a prosperous and influential member of the international community that contributes to international security and development, all the while adhering to multilateralism and the tenets of international law.

Surely such a responsible and advanced nation, aware of its achievements and elevated status, would be more open regarding international arbitration methods and dispute resolution. Framing Dokdo within this identity narrative may well serve to tip the scales through a public acknowledgment of the dispute, and see active engagement in an international (or bilateral) resolution. Several legal assessments of the South Korean sovereignty claim (see Fern and van Dyke) argue that any claim made by Seoul is likely to succeed based on South Korea’s de facto sovereignty rather than any reasoning based on historical maps.

To date, South Koreans have objected to the ICJ proposal on three fronts. First, colonization plays a minor role in ICJ rulings, and South Koreans believe the Dokdo issue is a matter of post-colonial justice. Second, the events of the The Hague Peace Conference in 1907, during which Imperial Japan was granted guardianship over Korea by the Western powers, are still widely remembered in Korea. Hence, remnants of distrust in international institutions remain today, combined with the perception that Japan still has greater clout in the international sphere. Third, the historical responsibility of the United States for legal uncertainties regarding sovereignty over the disputed islets is the product of its strategic crafting of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, produced when the outcome of the Korean War was still unforeseeable. All three points are crucial for a collective self-understanding rooted in post-colonialism and the idea of national self-autonomy, but decisively less so for a collective self-understanding assertive of its national influence that is able to see international law as more than a mere instrument of great powers.

Only by adopting a different identity narrative in regard to their Dokdo policy will South Korean decision-makers be able to ease tensions and open up new possibilities for effective management and resolution of the dispute. Naturally, any such change would not take place overnight, and certainly not within the current media and public discourse. It may, however, prove more successful than merely urging South Koreans to keep calm and carry on.

As it stands, there is no easier nor more effective way for Seoul to show to the world that South Korea is truly a global model citizen, a leading example of democratic and economic development, and a country averse to flip-flopping over its official position on the Dokdo matter. Such a move would not be analogous to abandoning the fight for justice on behalf of the victims of colonial wrongdoings, so long as the “comfort women” remains a genuine priority for the South Korean government.

Patrick Flamm is a PhD candidate in Asian Studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.