Test for Japan-Korea Relations: Takeshima-Dokdo Dispute
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
[Editor's Note added on 10 September 2004: This article has been included in the Series titled "Japan's Territorial Disputes" by the author. A full list of articles in this series can be found here.]
The successful co-hosting of the World Cup by Japan and Korea was a fantastic boost for bilateral ties, bringing the ordinary citizens of each nation a little closer. The event also created an opportunity for improving the often strained relationship between the two neighbours. Now, the first real test for the goodwill generated by the soccer tournament has emerged in the form of a long running territorial dispute, which many Koreans also closely associate with the Japanese school textbook controversy.
On Monday 12 August 2002, the South Korean government announced its intention to designate a disputed island, and an area of about 300 square kilometers surrounding it, as a national park in 2004.* The island is known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese. It is located between the two countries, lying about 215 kilometres from the Korean Peninsula and 157 kilometres from the Japanese Okinoshima islands off Shimane Prefecture.
The humble looking pair of isolated rocky islets form the basis of a long-standing dispute which periodically fires the passions of Korean nationalists. While many Japanese have never heard of Takeshima, the issue is covered extensively in the Korean press. Japanese fever over the issue is largely confined to ultra-nationalists and right-wing politicians.
Japanese and Korean historical accounts on the ownership of the island differ radically. In modern times, the island was officially declared a Japanese territory in 1905, but control was lost at the end of the war. In 1954, South Korea took effective charge of the island by stationing about forty coastguards on the lonely, barren rocks. **
Prior to the August 2002 announcement, tensions over Takeshima-Dokdo had been high in April 2002, when the Japanese Education Ministry approved a controversial high school history textbook that advocated Japan's territorial rights over the island. This rekindled Korean passion on the issue, leading to an inevitable round of Japanese flag burning by Korean ultra-nationalists. In Japan, the Takeshima- Dokdo issue was barely mentioned in the context of the textbook controversy. ***
Back in February 1996, Korean anger was raised by a statement from the then foreign minister, Yukihiko Ikeda, who publicly declared that the island was Japanese territory. This led both countries to indulge in a bout of gunboat diplomacy, launching navel exercises around the island in a display of military muscle. However, once tempers cooled, the countries did manage to sign an agreement the same year about joint exploration rights in the area.
Although Koreans tend to discuss the issue in strongly nationalist terms, the real heart of the disagreement for Japan is economic, not patriotic. Waters surrounding the islands contain rich fishing grounds and possible mineral deposits. Seoul's intention to designate the area as a national park should mean that strict restrictions will be imposed on the extraction and mining of mineral resources in the area. If the economic factors in the dispute can be reduced, the national park initiative may eventually be beneficial to both countries.
Both Seoul and Tokyo can gain some valuable insights and put the issue in perspective by examining the recent failures and successes of EU countries in dealing with the issue of contested uninhabited islands. In July 2002, a tiny uninhabited island off the Moroccan mainland had both Spain and Morocco dispatching troops and warships to the region. Days of intense saber rattling and troop deployments, finally ended with both sides eventually agreeing to leave the island uninhabited as it was before troops arrived in July. This clash has echoes of the 1996 Takeshima-Dokdo flare up and illustrates the counterproductive nature of the military approach.****
A recently negotiated island dispute between Finland and Norway offers a much better scenario to Japan and Korea in their quest for a solution. In January 2002, Norway handed over an uninhabited boarder island to Finland. The island is in the middle of the Inarijoki River in Arctic Lapland, forming a boundary between Finland and Norway. Because of the meandering nature of the Inarijoki River system, the boarder gradually shifts over decades.*****
While the Takeshima-Dokdo dispute is of a different nature, the Finland-Norway resolution shows the effectiveness of mutual cooperation. The successful 2002 World Cup clearly demonstrated that despite all the historical obstacles, the two countries can work together well. If the neighbouring nations are ever going to refine their relationship, then this dispute offers an excellent opportunity to build upon their recent success.
* Ministry unveils plan to include Dokdo in nat'l maritime park
Kwak Young-sup, Korea Herald, 13 August 2002
Seoul may build park to 'preserve' disputed isle
The Japan Times, 13 August 2002
A highly symbolic project,
Editorial, Korea Herald, 14 August 2002
Inclusion of the disputed rocky islets in a Korean national park will carry immense symbolic significance as a pronouncement of our territorial sovereignty.
Two Koreas' Civic Groups Pledge Joint Efforts on Dokdo Sovereignty
Seo Hyun-jin, Korea Herald, 17 August 2002
"We will forge a grand national movement against Japan's distortion of history, its claim to sovereignty over Dokdo and its military ambition," a resolution issued by the participants in the forum said.
** The Territorial Dispute Over Dokdo
[This site gives an entirely Korean perspective on the history and related issues. It has some photos of the island, a good map showing their position and some pictures of the poor lonely coast guards who are stationed on theses desolate rocks]
NBR'S JAPAN FORUM (POL) Korea-Japan: Tok-do/Takeshima
Kazuyoshi Hotta, Friday 16 August 2002
[Kazuyoshi Hotta provides a brief translation of a Japanese essay about the historical claim]
*** Stand Firm on Dokdo
Editorial, Korea Herald, 15 April 2002
Extract: The Japanese Education Ministry has recently approved another controversial history textbook, this time for use in high schools beginning April 2003, that advocates Japan's ungrounded territorial rights over the island [Dokdo].
**** Spain's troops leave disputed island
BBC World, Saturday 20 July 2002
***** Finnish finish for Lapland island
BBC World, Monday 21 January 2002