Dokdo/Takeshima Dispute - Takeshima Island in Japan or Dokdo Island in South Korea?
Connie Yap Ai Thong, Vice Secretary (2020/21)
MACRO INSIGHTS 2020/21
What is the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands?
Also known as the Liancourt Rocks, a group of small islets locates itself 211 km (114 nmi) from Honshu and 216 km (117 nmi) from the Korean Peninsula. The South Koreans call it “Dokdo” while the Japanese call it “Takeshima”. Located halfway between South Korea and Japan, the two countries have long disputed over the ownership of the rocks and the name of the rocks. They are also referred to as the Liancourt Rocks for an impartial title. Despite the fact that currently it is officially controlled by South Korea, the maritime territory is also claimed by Japan. Till now, it is still an unresolved territorial dispute in the region.
How did the Dokdo/Takeshima Dispute Arise?
In January 1905, the Japanese Government decided to incorporate the islands and announced the decision in the following month. Japan claims that it established control on the islands based on the principle of terra nullius and surveys conducted since 1895. Terra nullius is the principle where a land is legally deemed to be unoccupied or uninhabited. According to the Japanese interpretation, the Liancourt Rocks are to be regarded as Japanese territory as it used to be an unoccupied territory. On the other hand, South Korea claims that it has possessed the Liancourt Rocks since 512 under the Silla Dynasty. The Koreans believed that the Japanese incorporation of the Liancourt Rocks was part of Japan’s greater imperial expansion into Korea before the official annexation in 1910. To Koreans, the Liancourt Rocks represent the “first victim of Japan’s invasion”.
After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Article 2(a) of the San Francisco Peace Treaty declared that, “Japan, recognizing the independence of Korea, renounces all right, title and claim to Korea including the islands of Quelpart, Port Hamilton and Dagelet,” however it did not specifically mention “the Liancourt Rocks”. This sparked confusion as to whether Japan or South Korea was entitled to administer the territory. Nevertheless, in 1952, President Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea, announced the “Proclamation of Sovereignty over the Adjacent Seas” that drew a line including Dokdo under South Korean control. In 1954, South Korea proceeded to establish its sovereignty claims over the islands by occupying the islands and over the years constructed a dock, lighthouse and barracks for maritime police and coast guard personnel on Dokdo. The formal administrative control over the islands by South Korea in the mid-1950s was disapproved by the Japanese as an ‘illegal occupation’.
Why is the Dispute Still Unresolved?
According to the analysis by Asia Conflict Watch, it could be suggested that the fact that the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute is still unresolved for the following reasons:
With strong nationalist sentiment on both sides, the islands resemble a significant symbol to both South Koreans and Japanese. For South Koreans, they view Japan’s claim of sovereignty on the islands as a neo-colonial attempt to retain a strategically-important territory which they had colonised during their days of imperialism. The anger and humiliation of the Koreans regarding the past annexation of their country by the Japanese force is what causes the strong feeling to hold firmly to the islands. It is the same sentiments for the Japanese to hold on to the sovereignty claim of the islands. Witnessing the 2005 action by the southern Shimane Prefecture - the local government in Japan - that introduced an annual ‘Takeshima Day’, the brewing Japan’s nationalist sentiments demonstrates that the Japanese are not easy to let go of the islands.
Economic and Geo-strategic Importance of the Islands
Having a strategic location in the middle of a crucial route for shipping and regional trade, plus the abundant fish stocks, it could be understood that full political control over the territory would contribute to numerous benefits. Further, it makes the island even more valuable with the fact that there is potential for the unexplored areas around the islands that could contain uncovered oil and natural gas deposits. Thus, under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) , full political control over the Dokdo-Takeshima Islands would provide the country access to a 12-nautical mile Territorial Sea, plus a 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching out from the coastline. It should also be noted that, for Japan, surrendering the territorial claim of the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands would weaken its claims to islands that are in dispute with China, Taiwan and Russia.
Current Situation of the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands
Officially, the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands are administered by the South Korean government. Many times, Japan has stated that it would take the matter to the International Court of Justice for adjudication. However, as it requires both sides to agree to have the court consider the case in order to be adjudicated, such attempts have failed as South Korea would never agree to it. They hold firm by their position that there is no dispute to settle with the strong belief that ‘Dokdo is Korean’. For Japan, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website publishes such a statement that Takeshima is “indisputably an inherent part of the territory in Japan, in light of historical facts and based on international law”. It also commented that the Republic of Korea occupied Takeshima with “no basis of international law” and that the Japanese Ministry would continue to seek the settlement “in a calm and peaceful manner”. In 1974, an agreement was signed between Japan and South Korea that delimited their claims in the west channel of the Korea Strait between the peninsula and Tsushima Island of Japan. The 1974 agreement drew a line that deals with some overlapping claims on Tsushima Island but stops before reaching Dokdo/Takeshima. Here, delimitation efforts were interrupted due to the island dispute. Although both sides agree that the line should be drawn according to the median line principle laid down in Article 15 of UNCLOS, they conflicted as to the fact where the median line lies. Despite no serious incident had arisen since the disagreement, the EEZ delimitation will not proceed until the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute is settled.
Future geopolitical effect for Japan and South Korea
The dispute over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands appears minor when compared to the East and South China Seas maritime disputes. Nevertheless, as evidence shows, politicization of the island disputes is detrimental to the Japan-South Korea relationship. The tension between Japan and South Korea has rendered it difficult to plan jointly for contingencies, for instance, on the Korean Peninsula. It further affects U.S preparedness in the region as it puts the U.S. in a difficult position to provide support for either country when such contingencies arise. As a 2015 U.S. Congressional Research Service study states, “A poor relationship between Seoul and Tokyo jeopardizes U.S. interests by complicating trilateral cooperation on North Korea policy and other regional challenges.” Security agreements between the two countries have been impeded by the governments of South Korea, due to renewed tensions over the Liancourt Rocks. It is not unknown that South Korea and Japan face mutual security threats of the North Korean regime that frequently flaunts its missile tests. Not only that, the rise of China’s military activities in the South China Sea exists as another security risk for both countries.
Despite the aforementioned geopolitical issues, securing a mutual alliance with Japan and establishing a bilateral security agreement is a challenge with the existing domestic opposition from both countries, Japan and Korea both would need to consider their domestic political support before compromising on the dispute, as any leader that gives in to a compromise of the dispute would result in negative political repercussions. Also, the current islands disputes of Japan with China and Russia would affect Japan’s stances in the event they compromise its position with South Korea. Considering the high stakes and potential costs for seeking a negotiated solution, it could be more wise to maintain the status quo as the current situation is quite tolerable for both sides.
There is still a long way for the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute to be settled between the two powers. However, considering the other disputes at stake and arising geopolitical issues, the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute is hardly likely to bring about any military conflict for the present time. Its status quo would seem to remain unchanged for the time being.
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