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Wednesday, Sep. 5, 2012


Island row with South Korea rooted in rival historic claims

Staff writer

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak's visit last month to the pair of disputed islets in the Sea of Japan midway between his country and Japan raised tensions to an unprecedented level where now it appears impossible to even agree to disagree on their sovereignty.

News photo
No middle ground: South Korean military jets fly in formation over the disputed Takeshima, or Dokdo in Korean, islets on Aug. 14. Below: South Korean President Lee Myung Bak visits the islets on Aug. 10. AP, AFP-JIJI
News photo

Why did this dispute flare up and what basis does each nation have to claim ownership to the islands known as Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea?

Following are some basic questions and answers on the dispute:

Where are the islets and what are their characteristics?

The rocky islets lie roughly 210 km from both mainland Japan and mainland South Korea. The combined area of the two main islets is a mere 0.21 sq. km, or about the size of Hibiya Park in Tokyo.

While the islets have scarce water and vegetation, the sea around them is rich with seafood resources and the seabed possibly contains vast mineral and gas deposits as well.

The islands are currently under the control of South Korea, which stations a small police garrison there.

What is the main issue being debated?

Both countries base their territorial claims on historic precedence.

Japan claims Takeshima was not under any nation's control until the Cabinet officially stipulated the islets in January 1905 as Japanese territory. That was the same year the budding modern Imperial navy defeated the Russians in an epic battle and effectively took control of the Sea of Japan.

After World War II, Japan was forced to cede territories it held during the 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Its handover of Takeshima to what became South Korea was unjustifiable, the government says.

Seoul meanwhile claims the islets were recognized by Korean ancestors from as early as the sixth century.

In his book "Dokdo Takeshima Kankoku no Ronri" ("Dokdo Takeshima South Korea's Logic"), Kim Hak Joon, a former South Korean lawmaker and head of the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper, wrote that the territory was the "first land victimized" by Japan's invasion of Korea before the war, and that the islets had to be returned when the war ended.

What is the government's take on historic precedent?

According to data compiled by the Foreign Ministry in 2008, the Tokugawa shogunate had granted permission for Tottori-clan merchants to catch abalone and sea lions at Takeshima around 1618.

In his book "Nihon no Ryodo" ("Japan's Territory"), Kentaro Serita, a professor of international law at the graduate school of Aichi Gakuin University, said fishermen visited the area for years without conflict — proof that the islets were not under any other nation's effective control.

The shogunate also did not ban fishermen from traveling to the islets even during the Sakoku Period of national closure that began in 1630s, when all Japanese were prohibited from traveling overseas, meaning that by then the islets were recognized as Japan's territory and thus visiting them did not constitute travel abroad.

The 1905 Cabinet decision was meant to establish a license system for local sea lion hunters.

What is Seoul's take on the islets in the early years?

South Korea's Dokdo Research Institute, which operates under the education ministry's Northeast Asian History Foundation, argues that Korea recognized the islands from the sixth century.

The research institute claims that some maps made in Japan during that era show Takeshima was not under the sovereignty of Japan. The South Korean government also has documents from the period — written by Japanese officials — that it claims prove that Japan didn't consider the islands as Japanese territory.

On Japan's claim that the shogunate had issued permission for hunting by 1618, the institute states that "the very fact that government permission for passage was issued by the shogunate clearly shows the Tokugawa shogunate did not regard the islands as its territory.

What is Japan's response to South Korea's claim to being the first to hold the islets?

"The Republic of Korea side insists that it had established its effective control over Takeshima before Japan, but the wording of the documents the ROK refers to is ambiguous, and the ROK has no unequivocal proof that supports its argument," Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said during a news conference Aug. 24.

The Foreign Ministry says ancient documents that South Korea uses for its argument actually refer to a different nearby island, and not Takeshima.

Noda also insists that the debate should not be focused on historical facts but on whether South Korea's current occupation is consistent with "law and justice of the international community."

Why is 1905 considered a key turning point?

The Japanese side maintains that the Cabinet officially announced Takeshima as domestic territory that year. Pundits say that had Korea believed such action was unlawful, it should have filed an official complaint at that time.

But the Dokdo Research Institute claims Korea was not able to lodge a diplomatic protest due to the Japanese Protectorate Treaty of 1905, which deprived Korea of its diplomatic rights.

Japan began its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula after annexation in 1910.

What happened to the islets after World War II?

Following the end of the war, Japan's territory was delineated in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty between Japan and the Allies. In 1952, South Korea one-sidedly drew a line in the Sea of Japan and claimed fishery rights within its side, including Takeshima.

In 1954, Seoul announced that it had stationed police units on the islets, effectively establishing control over them.

In the process of drafting the San Francisco Peace Treaty, South Korea demanded that Japan renounce claims to Takeshima, but the U.S. rejected this.

Notwithstanding these circumstances, after the war, the South unilaterally drew the Syngman Rhee Line and "began illegally occupying Takeshima by force," Noda said during his Aug. 24 news conference.

In response to Seoul's claim over the 1951 treaty, Dean Rusk, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, wrote that Takeshima was "never treated as a part of Korea and, since about 1905, has been under the jurisdiction of the Oki Islands Branch Office of Shimane Prefecture of Japan. The island does not appear ever before to have been claimed by Korea."

Japan also points out that Takeshima was designated as a bombing range by the U.S. forces stationed in Japan, which proves Japan's previous sovereignty over the islets.

What is South Korea's take?

Regarding the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Dokdo Research Institute states that "initially, the U.S. recognized Dokdo as South Korean territory, and the temporary change in the U.S. position was only due to strategic lobbying by Japan."

How will the row over the islets proceed?

Tokyo points out that there won't be any constructive talks with such differences of opinion and insists that the case should be judged by the International Court of Justice.

But South Korea formally rejected the proposal last Thursday. The Dokdo Research Institute states there is "absolutely no reason as to why Korea should turn to a court on a matter that is all too clear."

The islets are "an area that Korea has finally restored from the aftermaths of Japanese imperialists' harsh colonial rule, which devastated the Korean people and the land," it also said.

According to reports, South Korean President Lee insisted while visiting the islands last month that Japan "has yet to make a sincere apology for its aggression" during the war.

What's next for the islets?

South Korea is scheduled to conduct routine military drills near the islets beginning Friday.

It will also celebrate Dokdo Day on Oct. 25, which was declared in 2010 by the Korean Federation of Teachers Association. The association cites Oct. 25, 1900, as the day the Greater Korean Empire proclaimed sovereignty over the islets.

Japan meanwhile is pondering not extending a bilateral currency swap agreement with South Korea that expires in October in light of the recent developments.

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