There are at least two important issues involved in a recent eruption of tiff between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima island. The first issue is whether Dokdo/Takeshima belongs to South Korea or it belongs to Japan and the second issue is whether it is right for the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to visit Takeshima/Dokdo, first ever by a South Korean President, because it led to worsening of bilateral relations with Japan as well as deterioration of regional security environment.
To arrive at a consensus over the first question is not easy as both countries maintain their claim over the island and international community as well as legal bodies are not conclusive over the matter. The island, which was named by French sailors as Liancourt Rocks, was not inhabited by any of the two countries before the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1905. Moreover, it is also almost settled that the island was not Japanese territory before the annexation. Most of the historians in Korea and Japan agree on the fact with rare exceptions. Recently, Kuboi Norio of the Japan Centre for Asian Historical Records categorically expressed that ‘multiple maps officially issued by the Japanese government in 1895 after the Sino-Japanese War show no marking for the island in Japanese territory. Actually, Japan included Dokdo/Takeshima under its territory in year 1905 and the same year, Korea was also annexed. Also, Japanese textbooks of this time, even those who were issued by the then Japanese Education Ministry also did not include Dokdo/Takeshima in the Japanese territory before 1905.
Does it mean that it was a Korean territory? The historical evidences are disputable but there is a strong claim of Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshima based on historical evidences. It is hard to agree with the Japanese claim that the island was terra nullius before 1905. Koreans have inhabited Ulleungdo, a nearby island from where you can see Dokdo/Takeshima with naked eyes, from prehistoric times. In the 6th century, Korean kingdom Silla included the island in its Usan-guk provnice. In 1476, the Korean government sent an official expedition to the island and in 1696, there is a reference that Koreans expelled occasional Japanese trespassers from the island. In the 19th century, just before the Meiji reform, the Japanese government declared that the island was a ‘forbidden foreign territory’ and in 1877 disowned it. It was disowned not because it was owned by Japan but because it was considered to make it categorical to avoid any friction with Korea, which had signed Kanghwa Treaty with Japan a year before. There are several historical records, which point out that the claim of Korea on the island as its territory is quite strong.
In the next phase of history, the island was annexed by Japan along with all the Korean territory in 1905. When Japan withdrew from Korea in August 1945, according to Koreans, it must be inferred that Japan withdrew from the Dokdo/Takeshima also. The Japanese claim that it did not withdrew from Dokdo/Takeshima emanates from the fact that the Treaty of San Francisco, which was signed between the Allied Powers and Japan on September 8, 1951, deliberately left out territorial claim over the island unresolved. Thus, it could be inferred that Japan did not withdraw from the island. Korean arguments against Japanese claim are essentially two. First, since Korea was not part of the Treaty, the mistake of omission by the Allied Powers could not be imposed on Korea. Two, the exclusion of Dokdo/Takeshima from the Treaty was result of politics of convenience on the part of Allied Powers. If we look at all the drafts of Treaty before arriving at the final version, we can see that the first five drafts and overall six drafts explicitly recognised Korea’s sovereignty over Dokdo/Takeshima. In the latter drafts, it was disputed and finally left out from the Treaty. The reason for the indecisiveness over the inclusion of the island could be attributed to American plan to use the island as strategic base for its military. The US was not sure what status of the island would be more convenient for its strategic interests and thus left the issue open for the future.
It’s also noteworthy that the 24-Corps of the US, which was based in Korea, transferred the island to the Republic of Korean government on August 15, 1948, the day when a formal government in South Korea was established and almost three years before the signing of San Francisco Treaty. Any party did not dispute it at that time. Before that, in 1946, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Instructions (SCAPIN) No. 677 officially removed Dokdo/ Takeshima from Japan’s territory and returned it to Korea. The South Korean Coastal Guard took physical possession of the island in January 1952 and thus for the last 60 years, the island is administered and occupied by South Korea. For a long time, the dispute had been considered insignificant and its present avatar dates back to 2005, when Japan’s Shimane prefecture announced to celebrate ‘Takeshima Day’ and it was vociferously opposed and contested by South Korea. The issue has been one of the important reasons for friction in the bilateral relations of two countries then on.
It is strange that after a long time of pause, when Japan almost forgot the issue and accepted status quo, suddenly the issue got flared up in the last decade. Several reasons could be identified for it and out of them two are most obvious. One, after the concept of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Law of Sea, which came into force around mid-1990s, the importance of marine resources of the East Sea was considered quite valuable. It was realised that possession of the island would dramatically change the contours of EEZs for South Korea and Japan. Two, there was an obvious churning in Japanese politics to be more assertive in the regional politics during this period. It was suggested that rather than being always apologetic to the colonial past, Japan should have a more confident posture.
In case of South Korea, it was and is a settled problem and Japanese renewed interest in Dokdo/Takeshima is seen as revival of its militaristic tendencies. South Korea looks at Japanese claim by clubbing it with other issues of dispute between the two countries such as Yasukuni shrine visits by Japanese authorities, denial of Japanese official involvement in the Comfort Women issue, and revision of Japanese school textbooks. It also becomes an emotional issue for millions of people in South Korea as it brings back their historical memory of the colonial days.
Now coming to the second issue about recent visit of South Korean President’s visit to Dokdo/Takeshima, it appears appropriate to suggest that he should have avoided his visit until the dispute cools down. However, it could also be argued that how many years South Korean Presidents had to wait to visit a territory, which belonged to them historically, occupied by Japan forcefully and deliberately left unresolved by big powers for their own conveniences. The island has been occupied by South Korea for around 60 years and probably, President Lee Myung-bak ran out of patience and decided to visit.
But the manner and timing of his visit create doubts that probably he wanted to score mileage in the domestic politics by his visit. In the recent months, he was questioned by opposition parties for his government’s move to conclude an agreement in the field of intelligence sharing with Japan and was branded as pro-Japan. Probably, he wanted to come out of this image by having a sudden visit to the islands. Furthermore, he does not have more than six months in the office and it was unnecessary on his part to escalate the issue in the last leg of his term.
Thus, the recent controversy over the Dokdo/Takeshima must be delineated into two parts. Whereas there might be disagreements on the visit of the South Korean President to the island, South Korean claim over the island is very well-founded. It also suggests that leaders of both the countries should avoid politics over the island and should try to constructively accommodate concerns of each other for a better future of the East Asia.
By Sandip Kumar Mishra
(The author is Assistant Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.)