Here we go again. This week saw rekindling of another old territorial dispute in the Far East. This time it was between Japan and South Korea over the Liancourt Rocks - a group of islets in Sea of Japan known to the Japanese as Takeshima and to the South Koreans as Dokdo. Japan is already locked in dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands and with China over the Senkaku Islands. Now South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's surprise, unprecedented visit this week to this disputed territory, has added fresh fuel to the simmering problems between Japan and South Korea.
Liancourt Rocks consists of two main islets and several smaller islets, created by volcanic activity. The geographical location of this disputed territory is 87km southeast of Ulleungdo Island of South Korea and 157km northwest of Oki Island (Shimane prefecture) of Japan. The area is mostly inhabitable and has been administered by the South Koreans since the 1950s. South Korea maintains a Coast Guard station, a lighthouse, and a helicopter pad on the island decorated with (of course) the country's flag.
Japan claims territorial rights to the Liancourt Rocks from a historical perspective. According to the Japanese Ministry Of Foreign Affairs, "In Japan, since Jinkichi Ohya and Ichibei Murakawa, who were both merchants of Yonago in the Houki-no-kuni region in the Tottori clan, received permission for passage to Utsuryo Island (then "Takeshima") from the Shogunate via the feudal lord of Tottori at the beginning of the Edo Period in the early 17th century, the two families took turns in traveling to Utsuryo Island once every year and engaging in activities such as harvesting abalone, hunting sea lions and the felling bamboo and other trees. Japan established the sovereignty of Takeshima by the beginning of the Edo Period, in the mid 17th century at the very latest."
Japan further highlights that cartographic depictions of Japan as early as 1779 show the now disputed territory as an integral part of Japan, even though it did not officially incorporate the land until February 1905.
The South Koreans maintain that the territory not only belonged to them prior to the Japanese colonization of the region in 1905, but it was in effect returned to them at the end of the Japanese occupation. The South Koreans defend their position by saying that, " When the United States composed the draft of the San Francisco Peace Treaty for the Allies, it included substantive enactment that Dokdo was a Korean territory from the 1st draft to 5th draft.
When noticing it, Japan lobbied through American counselor to provide Dokdo as a radar base and meteorological observatory for the US Air Forces. As a result, the US marked that Dokdo was not Korean territory but Japanese territory in 6th draft. However, other allies such as the Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia did not agree to the 6th draft of the US. So Dokdo was not mentioned in the 7th-9th draft.
The article 2 of San Francisco Peace Treaty ratified in San Francisco in September 1951 stated that Japan recognized the independence of Korea and relegated all rights of sovereignty in Jejudo, Geomundo and Uleungdo to Korea. And Dokdo was left out of it. So, Japan has maintained that the Allies recognized Dokdo as a Japanese territory.
This claim by Japan is factually inaccurate. Since Dokdo is annexed island to Uleungdo, to record just Uleungdo is that they recognized its annexed island Dokdo as a Korean territory automatically."
Over the ensuing decades since the San Francisco Treaty, even though the two countries have by and large maintained diplomatic ties and trade relations; this territorial dispute remains a hot button issue. For instance, when in 2005 the Shimane prefecture in Japan declared a "Takeshima Day", the response from the South Koreans was was so fierce that a South Korean man set himself on fire in front of the Japanese Embassy.
The recent flare-up started with the release of Japan's Annual White Paper (aka Annual Defense Report), released a couple of weeks ago, which reiterated that, "Japan also confronts unresolved territorial disputes over the Northern Territories and Takeshima, both of which are integral parts of Japanese territory". This assertion by the Japanese (which is not really anything new) may have prompted President Lee to take the historic trip to the Liancourt Rocks, thus becoming the first ever South Korean President to visit the disputed territory.
Even though Seoul is maintaing its stand that Lee's visit this week was not intended to stir up conflict with its neighbor and was only meant to highlight the islands' natural resources; the diplomatic fall out was almost immediate. Lee's visit was characterized by Japanese PM Noda as "totally unacceptable".
Within hours of Lee's visit, the front glass door of the South Korean Consulate General's office in Hiroshima was shattered by a brick; an incident believed to be linked to Lee's visit. In response to this incident, South Korea has asked Japan to step up protection at the nine offices of the South Korean diplomatic mission in Japan.
Japan has recalled its Ambassador to South Korea stating that, "In protest, we are temporarily pulling out Ambassador Mutoh from the Japanese Embassy in South Korea." Japan has also announced that it will postpone the upcoming financial talks between the countries, which were originally scheduled to be held by the end of this month. The two countries have held annual financial talks with each other since 2005. Japan has cited "difficulty in scheduling" as the reason for pulling out of the talks this year.
Here's an excerpt from the Japanese news paper, The Asahi Shimbun: "As far as Japan is concerned, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak crossed the line, and in doing so threw relations with Japan into a tailspin. Former presidents of South Korea had refrained from making such visits, thereby keeping relations with Japan cordial.
Lee's political grandstanding is at odds with his oft-stated remarks that South Korea should seek future-oriented relations with Japan. Lee clearly had domestic issues in mind when he decided to visit Takeshima. His administration has been rocked by a series of arrests of people close to him, including his elder brother who had served as chairman of the South Korea-Japan parliamentary league.
"President Lee knows that his visit to Dokdo will not lead to rise in the support rate for him. But the series of scandals no doubt were a factor in his decision as he wanted to divert the people's attention to another issue," said an indivual who previously advised Lee on policies toward Japan.
The Japanese government was caught completely off-guard by Lee's visit. "We had never thought the president would land on Takeshima," said a high-ranking Japanese government official on the morning of Aug. 10."
Today Tokyo announced that it wants to take this territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. However this diplomatic stance is for all practical purposes an empty threat, as it is unlikely that the case will be heard at the ICJ. The ICJ only accepts cases where both parties agree beforehand to abide by its ruling. Japan has tried to bring this territorial dispute to the ICJ twice before, in September 1954 and March 1962, but each time South Korea has refused to let the court decide on this matter. There is not much Tokyo can do unilaterally to bring this dispute to the ICJ if Seoul does not cooperate.
Seoul has already rejected the idea even today, just hours after Tokyo's announcement. The Korea Times reports that, ""The reason why the Japanese side is considering filing a suit with the International Court of Justice is to make the Dokdo issue an international dispute," the government official told Yonhap News Agency by telephone. "Our government's basic stance is that we will not accept it because Dokdo is clearly our territory," the official said on the condition of anonymity. "
The disputed territory in the Sea of Japan is believed to be a rich resource of fishing and also natural gas; so there is clearly an economic angle to this tension. But at its core, it is symbolic of the region's bitter history.
Here is an excerpt from a 1996 article published in The Chicago Tribune by Michael Lev which poignantly points out the historical context of this dispute: "In one sense, the disagreement over the island--called Takeshima by Japan--is about money. But in a deeper sense, it matters very little where the island is, what it looks like or whether there is good fishing nearby.
The argument isn't about ownership; it's about history, a previous war and what Koreans emotionally consider to be unfinished business with Japan.
Japan's colonial rule of Korea was brutal and complete. Children were taught Japanese in school, and families were forced to take Japanese names. But in South Korea, the resentment that remains isn't so much over the colonial years. While many Koreans who learned Japanese would prefer not to speak it, Japanese cuisine remains popular, and South Koreans do big business with Japan.
The sensitive point for Koreans is the belief that Japan has yet to fully repent for its transgressions before and during World War II. Japan has offered its "regret" and muted apologies, but Koreans say the Japanese government is not sufficiently sincere.
Japanese officials say they feel anti-Japanese sentiment is manipulated by South Korean politicians to whip up easy support. When explaining why Korea remains bitter, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official appeared puzzled. "We know it will take many more years," the official said. "Whatever we say, they say: Look at history. It's revisited whenever they find something unacceptable with Japan." In response, a Korean Foreign Ministry official scoffed. "We can't force them to repent. We have a long history. Perhaps we'll live with this for 500 or 1,000 years.""
A long standing, unresolved territorial dispute between these two neighbors will prove detrimental to the geopolitics of the entire region; proving perhaps that the future of humanity is somehow always held hostage by its history.