The Koreas | Diplomacy | East Asia

South Korea Erupts in Outrage Over Tokyo Olympics Map

The South Korean government and activists alike expressed deep regret toward a map marking disputed islets as Japanese territory. 

South Korea Erupts in Outrage Over Tokyo Olympics Map
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Ulleungdont

The Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee’s use of a map that includes the Liancourt Rocks, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, as Japanese territory on its website has exacerbated the relationship between South Korea and Japan. The islets are controlled by South Korea but also claimed by Japan, and the dispute is a cause of much tension between the two.

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said at the National Assembly on May 28 that the government will take the possible strongest action toward the map posted by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. Chung also added that the government already made complaints against Japan and made clear that Japan’s wrongdoings over Dokdo are intolerable.

The foreign minister demanded the Japanese Embassy in South Korea modify the map showing the islets as Japanese territory on May 24. However, the Japanese Embassy in South Korea rejected the demand as unacceptable, saying that the Japanese government’s position on the territory has not changed at all.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu said on May 27 that the government will not delete the islets from the map and again called the demand from the South Korean government unacceptable, adding that Takeshima is Japan’s indigenous territory on the basis of international law and historical fact.

Since the Japanese government has refused to change the controversial map posted on the Tokyo Olympic website, South Korean experts and non-governmental organizations have urged the government to take strong measures in the long-running political dispute.

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“The Japanese government has repeatedly said that Dokdo is a Japanese territory on the basis of ‘historical fact’ and ‘international law.’ I would like to know what specific historical fact and international law they are talking about,” Seo Kyung-duk, a professor at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul, told The Diplomat

The professor pointed out that labeling Dokdo as Japanese territory on the map is a tendentious decision, and said the government should keep demanding the IOC change its stance on this matter. “It’s unfair that the International Olympic Committee does not apply same standards to Japan as it did to South Korea in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics,” Seo added.

The South Korean government has urged the Japanese government and IOC to consider the way the same issue was handled during the PyeongChang Olympics. At that time, Japan strongly demanded that South Korea remove the islets from the map displayed on the Korean Unification flag. In fact, the Japanese cabinet secretary at the time who publicly demanded an appropriate response from the South Korean government was Suga Yoshihide, who is now the Japanese prime minister.

The South Korean government decided to alter the map on the Korean Unification flag at that time in order to follow the IOC’s recommendation and separate sports from political issues. This decision sparked protests from many South Korean citizens and non-governmental groups. As the host of the PyeongChang Olympics, however, the government decided to show a flexible response to prevent political issues from becoming entangled in the spirit of the IOC and global sports event.

However, three years later, Japan has shown a different attitude toward the questioning of entangling politics with the IOC.

“I think one of the reasons that the IOC has not been actively responding to this matter is because of sponsorships linked to the Tokyo Olympics,” Seo said.

Among the top 13 companies that have sponsored the Olympics in the past three years, a span which includes both the PyeongChang and Tokyo Olympics, Samsung is the only Korean company, while three Japanese companies – Bridgestone, Panasonic, Toyota – are included. Japanese companies make up approximately a quarter of the top-tier corporate sponsorship for the Tokyo Olympics.

In the past, Japan had made complaints to both the South Korean government and the IOC over the territorial dispute, while not showing in its own behavior any of the restraint it demands from Seoul.

In the 2012 London Olympics men’s soccer bronze medal match, South Korea defeated Japan by 2-0. After the match, a South Korean player raised a banner, reading “Dokdo is our land,” that had been handed down by the Korean cheering squad. Japan complained about his action and he was banned from attending the medal ceremony. The IOC eventually awarded him a bronze medal, ruling that his action was unplanned and could not be viewed as political activity, but he had to wait for the IOC’s decision for months.

Now, faced with the provocation of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee’s map, South Korean politicians from the ruling Democratic Party have argued that the government must consider strong measures, even up to boycotting the Tokyo Olympics, should Japan maintain its current stance. However, the government has not mentioned that it is considering a boycott.

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Lee Hye-ji, a civil activist who promotes South Korea’s Dokdo claim to the international community in Seoul, told The Diplomat that the map was a typical example of Japanese behavior on the issue. “It was not easy to understand the decision which the South Korean government made three years ago as Dokdo is our territory, but I understood the decision because of the sanctity of the Olympics,” Lee said.

“There will be no Koreans who would not have expected Japan to behave this way. Even if they behave poorly, we just need to maintain our dignity… It is important to deliver the factual information and historical facts that Dokdo is a Korean territory.”