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Territorial DisputesJapan has territorial issues with three of its neighbours. Each and every instance seems intractable, and each is a major issue in Japan’s relations with those neighbours. North of Hokkaido, Japan claims the four islands that it calls the ‘Northern Territories’. To Japan’s northwest is Takeshima, claimed by the South Koreans. West of Japan is the Senkakus, which China claims. Nearby lie lucrative gas fields that could ease the burden of energy security on both sides.This post is the second of three that examine the territorial disputes of Japan. Today we will examine the dispute between South Korea and Japan over the Liancourt Rocks, as well as the virtual territorial disputes over the naming of features in the vicinity. This is an issue that sparks flag-burning in South Korea, but I hope to approach the issue as fairly as possible.


Takeshima Map

On any map at a scale that allows you to see Liancourt Rocks (named after the French ship that charted them in the mid-19th Century), known to the Japanese as Takeshima (竹島) can only show it to you as a small dot. On the map above, it is probably no more than 2 pixels (accounting for the dithering). It is actually two small, rocky outcrops and 35 minor rocks known to the Koreans as Dokdo (독도, 獨島). To attempt to be more objective, I will use the more neutral English name rather than the disputed names of either side (for fear of the nationalist hoards).


Takeshima Close-up

History of the Dispute


So there it is, those barren rocks are the subject of such controversy. How does each side ground their claims? As with the Northern Territories, the issue is complex. Japan had annexed the rocks in January 1905, eight months prior to the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth. It had done so under the presumption of terra nullius, or ’empty land’. A month later, on February 22nd, it was incorporated into Shimane Prefecture. It was only after the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth, over a year after the annexation of the Liancourt Rocks, that Japan informed Korea, who by that time were already controlled by Japan. The Treaty of Portsmouth (1905) gave control of Korea to Japan. Article 2 of the treaty reads:

The Imperial Russian Government, acknowledging that Japan possesses in Korea paramount political, military and economical interests engages neither to obstruct nor interfere with measures for guidance, protection and control which the Imperial Government of Japan may find necessary to take in Korea. It is understood that Russian subjects in Korea shall be treated in exactly the same manner as the subjects and citizens of other foreign Powers; that is to say, they shall be placed on the same footing as the subjects and citizens of the most favored nation. It is also agreed that, in order to avoid causes of misunderstanding, the two high contracting parties will abstain on the Russian-Korean frontier from taking any military measure which may menace the security of Russian or Korean territory.

The Russo-Japanese War had centred around control of Korea and Manchuria, thus in resolving the war it was deemed necessary to make Korea a protectorate to one of the parties, thereby allowing the victor to exercise control over the contested ground. Japan was deemed to have won the war having won at the Battle of Tsushima. * Japan also received Port Arthur and the rest of the Liaodong (Liaotung) Peninsula (the part of China just north of North Korea that sticks into the Bohai Sea, which is in turn north of the Yellow Sea). Manchuria was given back to China.

*The battle was a tragic one for the Russians. With their strongest ships part of the Baltic Fleet, they found it necessary to send the fleet half way around the world (from North Europe, all the way over to Korea) where they were sunk by the excellent tactics of Admiral Togo. The fleet took nearly 8 months to reach the theatre of war, almost started a war with the UK (after firing on fishing ships off Dogger Bank which they believed to be torpedo boats) and lost 21 ships in the battle. The Japanese, who had studied the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan (who advocated the primacy of the ‘decisive battle’), had several foreign observers, all of whom were impressed by the resonance of Mahan’s work in the battle. This was what made the Japanese Navy the pride of the Imperial Armed Forces.

The Koreans, on the other hand, say that the Liancourt Rocks was incorporated into the Korean Empire in 1900 with Korean Government Imperial Ordinance 41. They claim that the island referred to as Seok-do (石島) in the ordinance is actually what is currently known to them as Dokdo, because of the pronunciation of those Hanja (Chinese characters: Hanzi in Chinese, Kanji in Japanese) in local dialects.

However, Ordinance 41 was an internal ordinance by the government. Japan’s annexation of the Liancourt Rocks was a unilateral measure based on an understanding that it belonged to no-one. Furthermore, Japan’s actions were occurring at a time when it was fighting for control of Korea. The Russo-Japanese War was between a failing Tsarist regime and a growing power with colonial interests, Japan’s claims might then be said to have been made through aggression or greed.

Takeshima Today

The issue is a hot one, and the best way to illustrate that is with videos, albeit from Japanese TV. I believe you will see the extensive nationalist fervour the rocks incite in South Korea, as well as the more, dare I say, nonchalant approach taken by Japan.

Takeshima and Japan

In 2005, Shimane Prefecture proposed the creation of Takeshima Day, February 22nd, exactly 100 years after the Liancourt Rocks were incorporated into the prefecture. In 2006, Japan attempted to conduct a general maritime survey from which Japan backed down (media reports worried that a skirmish might take place). It is generally held that the issue is not as big a deal for the general population as it is in South Korea, although the obvious exceptions are the citizens of Shimane Prefecture and the nationalistic uyoku (a subject of a future post).

Dokdo and South Korea

I believe that having watched the videos above, you are aware that the issue is a critical one in South Korea. The furore is propelled by anti-Japanese sentiment and the government’s willingness to indoctrinate the nation’s children with its claims. Frankly I am disturbed by the emotions kicked up over this, but I am well-aware that this might simply be the result of media attraction to the extremes. However, I hope to go over this at a later date in another post.

Dissecting the Dispute

The article Territorial Disputes at the International Court of Justice by Brian Taylor Summer (Duke Law Journal, Vol. 53 (2003-04), pp. 1779-1812) describes nine justifications of claims over territory. These are indeed the criteria that an appeal to the ICJ will encounter (you may have noticed that in one of the videos above, the reluctance of South Korea to take such an action was discussed). I will examine the ownership over the Liancourt Rocks using each category as a lens.

A. Treaty Law

In Imperial Ordinance 41 and Japan’s incorporation of the islands into Shimane Prefecture are not international agreements and neither was party to one another’s actions. Korea was also not a signed party of the Treaty of Portsmouth, which instead handed over a great deal of the Korean Empire’s sovereignty to the Japanese. In fact, the Liancourt Rocks do not appear in any international agreement, most importantly, they are not mentioned at all in the Treaty of San Francisco. Thus this category is unlikely to resolve the issue in the eyes of any independent body.

B. Geography

Takeshima Distances

In terms of geography, the nearest territories for Japan and Korea are Okinoshima and Uleungdo. Uleungdo is nearly twice as close as Okinoshima to the Liancourt Rocks. However, distances mean very little except for deciding the boundaries between islands. The issue is a strategic one, and geography is unlikely to resolve this issue. If either state were to secure the islands, they could push the border of their Exclusive Economic Zone (typically 200 miles from the coast, or to the halfway point between the coast and another state), thus the issue is not simply about these barren rocks.

C. Economy

For both countries, the Liancourt Rocks offer vital resources with rich fishing stocks and gas deposits. The Sea of Japan (or East Sea, as it is known to the Koreans) is essential to both states, and thus securing extra territory brings with it major economic advantages. However, there is no definitive justification coming from the economic interests of either state, instead they are quite equal, thus this category will not decide the issue.

D. Culture

Is there an issue of culture when we discuss what are little more than rocks? I think not as the islands are uninhabited (or at least were, until the South Koreans began the military build-up). This is another category that has little to say.

E. Effective Control

The South Koreans are clearly the controlling force of the Liancourt Rocks. They have been since the early 1950s when Syngman Rhee, then President of the Republic of Korea, established the ‘Rhee/peace line’ which staked a claim to the Liancourt Rocks. There were a number of incidents involving the Japanese Coast Guard and volunteer guards from Korea, during which there were casualties. They have constructed a radar, port and lighthouse there and a number of people both guard and maintain the islets.

F. History

Each claimant looks back into history to provide some long-standing claim, and the depth of this activity is bewildering. The island was uninhabited until the latter part of the 20th Century (and only then inhabited by people who wished to guard it).

At the start of the Edo Period, Japanese fisherman would travel to Ulleungdo with the blessing of the Shogunate Government to fish, hunt and forest, they used the Liancourt Rocks as a base-camp, and even after trips to Ulleungdo were abandoned in 1696 (after a conflict between Korea and Japan), fishermen and hunters still visited the rocks. This continued into the Meiji Era.

The Koreans attempt to trace their historical claims all the way back to 512 AD. Their claims are extensive and I have neither the inclination nor time to press into them, although readers should start here with Gerry at Occidentalism’s posts ‘Lies, Half-Truths, & Dokdo Video’. Gerry does a great job at debunking much of the noise. You will find the links to the other parts of that series of posts at the end of that post.

The historical claims of both sides are sketchy at best, and it is unclear how well they would stand up at a ICJ arbitration.

G. Uti Possidetis

This is a phrase to describe the handing down of administrative borders from a colonial power. On this section, the fact that Japan incorporated the Liancourt Rocks into its own territory would suggest that the postcolonial borders would rest between Ulleungdo and the rocks. If it came down to this, I guess Japan would come through, but the problem is the way in which Japan’s colonialism was ended: Allied victory in WWII.

H. Elitism

This category favours the party most likely to make the most out of the territory, and to be honest, I’m not quite sure that it applies. There is a limit to what one can do with the islands, but the South Koreans have taken the development issue by the hand and pushed through to create at least the most basic infrastructure of sovereign and economic control. Thus I believe the South Koreans have it on this one too.

I. Ideology

This claim most probably falls onto the anti-imperialist/colonialist ideology enshrined in the Atlantic Charter. Ideology such as this is the opposite of uti possidetis, in that the conclusion of the Second World War saw a desire to give territory back to its rightful, non-imperial owners. In this vein, the rocks would probably fall to South Korea.


Prospects for the Future

I started this post believing that Japan’s claims over the islands were the strongest, in international terms at least. However, I have no doubt that Japan is unlikely to ever get the islands back without having to fight for it. South Korea controls the Liancourt Rocks, and possession is nine tenths of the law. Although the South Koreans are unwilling to take the issue to the ICJ, because of fear of the smallest chance that they might lose, it seems highly likely that they would win based on their control. One article even suggested that due to the Liancourt Rocks ‘limbo cession’ in the Treaty of San Francisco, one of the parties might call on the US to make a judgement… One wonders what that would do for US alliances in the region. Quite frankly, the only prospect for the future is that Japan will simply stop caring, although given the economic possibilities inherent in pushing out its EEZ into that region makes it unlikely. This is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, and I’m sure it might get a lot worse before it begins getting better.

Next time: Japan’s Territorial Disputes with China.

PS: Sorry for the delay in writing this, it’s bedlam at the moment. I hope to keep to at least two posts a week in the meantime, although do expect that I’ll throw in some duds to keep things moving.

Further Resources