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Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011


Home and Away

A trip to the Liancourt Rocks can easily land you in deeper water than you expected

Special to The Japan Times

Kim Sung Do is trying to look relaxed, but failing. Straight backed, arms pulled tight to his sides, he chatters away in a dialect that even the Korean translator struggles to comprehend.

News photo
Islands in the stream: A ferry pulls away from one of the Dokdo Islands, known to Japanese as Takeshima, sovereignty over which is disputed between Japan and South Korea, in the Sea of Japan on June 22 last year. ROBERT GILHOOLY PHOTOS

One thing that's clear is that Kim's got a toothache. He tells me this in our common language . . . ballpark signing . . . by pointing a finger into his open mouth and pulling a scrunched-up face, the deep lines in this 71-year-old man's weather-beaten features providing all the auxiliary punctuation required.

Another message he conveys consists of that same grimace prefaced by a forefinger pointing seaward and a hand over his heart. "I miss home," this presumably means.

"I feel so comfortable there," he says later through the translator. When he does make rare trips to the mainland to see his three children or, as is the case this time, to visit a dentist, he feels uneasy among the crowds. "I can't wait to go back."

Home for Kim is on one of a group of tiny islands 215 km over the horizon from where we stand on a beach on South Korea's east coast. Though their entire surface area totals less than 0.2 sq. km, those islands are a politically charged symbol for South Koreans and Japanese alike, triggering confrontations, demonstrations, diplomatic spats and mutterings of international tribunals.

Kim and his wife, Kim Shin Yeol, have lived there for 40 years, the only permanent residents on what they and all Koreans call Dokdo — two craggy, treeless islands and 33 surrounding rocks and reefs that Japanese know as Takeshima, and anyone not wishing to earn the wrath of either country refers to as the Liancourt Rocks (named after a French whaling ship almost wrecked there in 1849).

Only one of those names could be heard during a five-hour trip aboard one of only two boats currently serving the islands, the ferry from Pohang port on the southeast coast of the Korean Peninsula. As we approached the islands, which I'll impartially call the Liancourts, 240 Koreans spilled onto the decks armed with cameras and mobile phones, lenses pointed at the two fortresslike rocks that were rising abruptly out of the ocean as they have done for the best part of 3 million years.

On this trip there's not a Japanese visitor in sight. Local authorities report that around 500,000 people have visited the islands since the ferry services started in 2005, with Japanese fewer than 5 percent of those.

"Actually, I wish more Japanese would come," says Park Hee Sung, a Seoul-based IT engineer. "I want them to see how Korean Dokdo really is, that it is ours . . . so let's not fight about it."

The boat trip involves a refuel stopover at Ulluengdo, a bigger island about 90 km west of the Liancourts. Killing time around the colorful dockside fish market, I notice an elderly man sporting a white T-shirt on which is printed, in English and Japanese: "Dokdo is Korean Territory."

"I give these to any Japanese visitors who come this way," says Sung Kyu Lim, who runs a souvenir shop on the island. "I don't want to agitate, just educate. You can see Dokdo from here when the weather is clear. It's in our back yard."

With the islands being located virtually equidistant from the mainlands of each country, competition for "back yard" affinity has been a sticking point in relations between the northeast Asian neighbors for more than 60 years. Researchers and scholars invariably turn to maps and historical tomes to back up their territorial claims, although counter claims and historical ambiguity cloud the issue further.

Take, for instance, the Paldochongdo (Map of Korea) penned in 1531, which indicates the Liancourts as Korean territory. According to the map, they lie due west of Ulluengdo and are a single island roughly the size of Ulluengdo — when they are actually 90 km to the east and, even collectively, far smaller.

In Japan, meanwhile, 1877's Dainihon Zenzu (Complete Map of Japan) produced by the Military Affairs Bureau, makes no mention of the islands. Similarly, an official Shimane Prefecture map dated 1929 omits the islands — even though Japan officially incorporated them into Shimane Prefecture in 1905.

"Even officially published documents didn't include the islands, which is proof Japan didn't regard them as belonging to them whatsoever," says Shin Yeon Sung, secretary general of the Northeast Asian History Foundation, a research center in Seoul partly funded by the South Korean government.

News photo
Sung Kyu Lim wears a T-shirt on which states in English and Japanese his and Korea's claim to sovereignty over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima Islands near his souvenir shop on neighboring Ulleungdo Island in South Korea on June 22.

And indeed, a Japanese foreign ministry communique on the issue, titled "10 Issues of Takeshima," doesn't mention the two maps, but attempts to counter South Korea's assertion that Japan made no claims to the islands prior to 1905, when Japan incorporated them on the still-contested grounds that they had been terra nullius (no man's land) under international law.

Records show, it states, that Japan "established sovereignty over the islands in the mid-17th century at the very latest," and Japanese fishing vessels made shogunate-sanctioned visits to the islands before and after 1653 — the year Japan declared its sakoku policy of barring foreign entry and Japanese departure from the country.

South Korea counters that historical documents place the islands as part of the Silla Dynasty in 511 A.D. — and, that notwithstanding, they were among the colonized territories that, according to the San Francisco Peace Treaty signed by Japan in 1951, were supposed to be repatriated after World War II.

In fact, the earliest drafts of the treaty confirmed Korea's sovereignty of the isles, but by the sixth draft they were Japan's. Then they were returned to Korea again in the seventh. Later drafts, including the final and binding one, omitted mention of the Liancourts altogether, thereby sowing the seeds of an ongoing discord, particularly as there are rich fisheries in the area and there's even talk of undersea gas reserves.

Despite subsequent U.S. memos indicating the islands should be considered Japanese territory, Seoul took control of them in 1954 and has stationed security personnel there since — a fait accompli that Japan has challenged and countered with overtures of peaceful resolution through the international courts in The Hague.

South Korea, however, has refused to comply, because, as Seoul National University professor Koo Min Gyo explains, as far as the government is concerned, there is no legal issue to resolve.

"The official view is South Korea cannot negotiate because it has no territorial dispute with Japan, which is exactly how Japan treats China with regards to the Senkaku Islands dispute," says Koo, a specialist in northeast Asia disputes and regionalism.

"South Koreans and other nations that experienced colonialism for decades, even centuries, are still obsessed with national sovereignty. We still have this sense of victimization."

According to Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Hidenobu Sobashima, Japan's position "remains unchanged" with regard to what is referred to in the ministry's official statement as South Korea's "illegal occupation of Takeshima" and its claim that the islands are "an inherent territory of Japan in light of historical facts and based on international law."

This apparent Catch-22 situation makes any bilateral solution unlikely, says Koo, meaning a multilateral framework, such as the Six-Party Talks, is required "to collectively but incrementally deal" with disputes in the region.

"Otherwise, we must hope there are no diplomatic spats between the two countries in the next 10 years. Maybe then we can talk about the next step," he adds.

It seems a small asking price, yet tempers have tended to flare more regularly. In 2005, Shimane Prefecture ignored foreign ministry recommendations and declared Feb. 22 as "Takeshima Day," causing demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, during which two Korean nationals sliced off their fingers in protest.

Six years on, and Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Shu Watanabe last month vowed to attend this week's celebrations in Shimane, a move that some believe will trigger the kind of diplomatic spat that followed Japan's reassertion of territorial rights in a 2008 teachers' manual.

Yet, it is Korea that has been more effective in raising positive awareness of the issue, instigating a plethora of pro-Dokdo, anti-Takeshima websites and infiltrating public conscience through "Dokdo is Korean Territory" newspaper ads, posters, drinks, smart-phone applications and video games, says Masao Shimojo of Takushoku University in Tokyo, whose published works include "Is Takeshima Japan's or Korea's?"

"In Japan, unlike Korea, territorial issues are local government concerns, not national ones, and there is no national institution here to research the issue or a unified voice communicating the Republic of Korea's erroneous historical arguments," says Shimojo, adding that Takeshima Day was inaugurated partly because many people, himself included, felt the national government was not doing enough to raise awareness of the issue.

Shimojo continued, "Korea has been skillful in lobbying support, both domestically and internationally, but self-seeking politicians in Japan, whose only concerns are winning the next election, are largely responsible for Koreans spouting off 'Takeshima is Korean territory' slogans. I doubt they know the historical facts either."

A keener awareness of the issue among Koreans is a key reason why Japan should abandon its territorial claims, says Jeff Kingston, the dean of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

"The only scenario for a peaceful solution is for Japan to renounce all claims. To do so would improve bilateral relations historically. Not doing so would simply prove Japan is deaf to its colonial legacy. Korea is never going to budge on this issue. It means too much to them."

News photo
Kim Seong Do, who together with his wife, Shin Yeol, are the only permanent residents on the disputed islands, walks along the beach near the East Sea Research Institute in Gyeongbuk, South Korea on June 21.

Back aboard the ferry to the islands, this sentiment is plain to see. As the captain announces the news everyone dreaded, that the waters are too choppy to risk going ashore, groans of disappointment are tempered by another announcement that the ferry will do a circle of the islands.

Visible just 60 meters away on the more easterly island is the concrete wharf, a lighthouse — manned by South Korean maritime officials — and a helicopter pad. Clinging to the eastern extremity of the more westerly island, meanwhile, is the home of the Kims, the islands' only residents.

Or so I thought. According to fellow passenger Park, more than 2,000 Koreans have moved their permanent addresses here through the National Dokdo Permanent Registration Movement — and as of last April all Korean day-trippers have been eligible for honorary citizenship.

"We like our Dokdo," he says with a smile. "And we plan to keep it."

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