April 22, 2006

A Rock And a Hard Peace

Hatched by Sachi

A standoff has developed over the past year between Japan and South Korea (there is another one between Japan and China, but that is a subject for another day). Each claims possession of a small, rocky, uninhabitable island that the Japanese call Takeshima, and the Koreans since the 1950s call Dokdo.

Takeshima Island

Takeshima Island, garden spot of the Sea of Japan

(The island is also called Liancourt Rocks; you can read all about it here.)

Neither country really wants the rock. What they want is the surrounding sea, which is teeming with shellfish and seaweed, and is also rich in natural resources, including natural gas potentially worth billions of dollars.

Japan has been backing down and kowtowing to the Koreans and Chinese for decades now; but they simply cannot allow South Korea to formally absorb Takeshima Island without completely losing their face. If they are to get any respect in the world, they must stand up to Korea, even to the point of exchanging gunfire with the South Korean coast guard, if that's what it takes.

Obviously, I have a personal bias, since I was born a Japanese. Maybe the Koreans have a much better argument than I've seen so far. But even in that case, some neutral party must adjudicate this; the Republic of Korea cannot simply say "it's ours, now," and take possession.

Japan has sent a survey ship towards the island; but South Korea threatens to seize the ship and hold all the personnel hostage if it comes anywhere near Takeshima. They have also driven away Japanese fishermen whose families have fished there for literally centuries. Yet not a single international body has ever recognized South Korea's right to the area: the Koreans simply took it by force.

First, some background:

Ever since Japan lost the war back in 1945, countries such as South and North Korea and China have been using Japan's past wrongs -- committed by different people in a completely different government that was destroyed in 1945 -- as an excuse to kick Japan around. They long-ago realized that Japan is too cowardly to stand up for itself. It's hard to blame the Republic of Korea; if a person or a country is too afraid to fight for his own property, then he doesn't deserve any.

Historically, Japan and Korea have had a lot of bad blood between them. Japan tried to invade Korea many times over the past millennium; and of course, Japan's terrible occupation of Korea during WWII thing didn’t help, either. However in recent years, the relationship between the two countries was warmer, because of trade, sports, and most significantly -- Korean entertainment.

The popularity of Korean TV shows and movies in Japan has exploded in the last five years. Just watching TV in Japan, it seems like 20% of all daytime soap operas are actually made in Korea. Korean heartthrobs have mesmerized middle-aged Japanese ladies (like my mom!) Korean actors, such as Bae Yong Joon (affectionately called "Yon-sama" or Prince Yong in Japanese), make personal appearances that literally pack a baseball stadium.

In South Korea, the locations used for Korean movies have become Japanese tourist Meccas. This whole phenomenon is called Hanryu-boom, which I would translate as "Korean fad." (Notice that in Japanese, "boom" means fad; that is because it's another American word that was incorporated into Japanese.)

Unfortunately, the Korean people and their government have become so obsessed over these stupid islands that they've forgotten all of this in the wink of an eye. The bad blood is boiling over again.

Takeshima was undisputed Japanese territory for several centuries. It's not known when exactly Japan first made a claim; but back in 1656, the new Japanese shogunate issued some Japanese subjects a travel permit to the island. By World War II, Takeshima had been under Japanese sovereignty for almost three hundred years.

In 1905, Japan incorporated Takeshima into Shimane prefecture; this was internationally recognized at the time. Until very recently, not even South Korea disputed this historical fact.

The problem began in the aftermath of Japan's defeat in the war. The Allies' General Headquarters/Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers suspended Japanese territorial control over many of the small islands surrounding the Japanese "mainland" (which actually consists of four islands -- Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu). Takeshima was one of the islands suspended.

But those islands were never given to any other country; the Allies simply prevented the Japanese from exercising authority over them for several years. In particular, they certainly were not handed to Korea (as it was called until the 1948 partition). Most of the islands included in the suspension list were later returned to full Japanese control, though it's not clear whether Takeshima was one of them.

However, in 1954, the South Korean navy took Takeshima by force; two years later, the first president, Syngman Rhee, declared "Dokdo" to be theirs... and therefore also the surrounding ocean’s fishing rights. Since then, the Republic of Korea has physically controlled Takeshima. Japan has protested the annexation as "Korean aggression" ever since; they consider Takeshima still to be part of Shimane prefecture. But Japan has not been able to get a hearing.

The current blowup started in 2005. For the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Shimane prefecture’s incorporation of Takeshima, Shimane passed legislation declaring February 22nd to be a “Day of Takeshima.” This made South Korean officials irate. They increased the number of Coast Guard ships and started intimidating Japanese fishing boats, sealing off the island and the nearby waters from any Japanese.

In response, the Japanese government decided to send a maritime survey group to the international waters near Takeshima in the Sea of Japan. This stirred up South Korea like a typhoon.

The reaction to this survey was nothing short of hysteria. Korean "sister cities" to Japan denounced their friendship; soccer matches were cancelled; and President Roh Moo-hyun declared that the Republic would not hesitate to use force to stop the Japanese survey group.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has said Seoul does not view the survey as an isolated event but rather a part of Tokyo's refusal to show contrition for harsh colonial rule over the peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Korean activists burned Japanese flags... then stood in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul and cut off their own fingers as a protest.

A South Korean official said Seoul expected [Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro] Yachi to convey a pledge from Japan not to conduct the survey while the two countries sought a diplomatic solution, Yonhap news agency reported.

"We are trying to avert a physical confrontation, but we can't run away from the problem," Yu [Myung-hwan Vice Foreign Minister of South Korea] was quoted as saying by Yonhap.

Tokyo has offered to call off the survey if South Korea drops a plan to register Korean names for seabed areas near the islands at a June international maritime conference.

President Roh's threat to use force to prevent the Japanese from approaching an island still technically theirs -- and in international waters anyway -- veers close to "casus belli." Ownership of Takeshima has been disputed since 1954; the Republic of Korea has no authority to rule the matter closed without even a trial in some international tribunal; they cannot be both a litigant and the judge at the same time.

Neither do they have any right to prevent Japan from fishing or surveying in international waters; this is a matter of "freedom of the seas." The simple dispute should be resoloved in some international court, not by force of arms.

If the ROK continues this blockade, Japan must respond in a similar manner. Since South Korea threatens to use force, Japan should send a military escort along with the survey group and call their bluff.

This is a sovereignty test for Japan. If they want to regain international respect, they are going to have to stand up for themselves. If they back down here, the Republic of Korea is going to start "naming" every island between them and Japan with Korean names.

In order to resolve this territorial dispute without a war, Japan should file suit in some international court. But time is running short; South Korea has already started calling the Sea of Japan by a Korean name. If Japan does nothing, then before they know it, Korea will have a Korean name for Honshu, and Japan will literally be wiped off the map (like those Arab maps that don't even show Israel).

It's time for Japan to finally show some backbone.

Hatched by Sachi on this day, April 22, 2006, at the time of 2:08 AM

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The following hissed in response by: levi from queens

The Wikipedia article makes it seem as if Korea has a far stronger claim. What is the Big Lizard's view of what Wikipedia says?

The above hissed in response by: levi from queens [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 22, 2006 3:04 PM

The following hissed in response by: Steven Den Beste

It's not just Korea and China that have done this. There's also the dispute over the Kuril islands, between Japan and Russia.

The above hissed in response by: Steven Den Beste [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 23, 2006 2:57 AM

The following hissed in response by: Don

Is it just me, or does anyone else think that while the Japan-US alliance has become closer the South Korea-US alliance has become less friendly?

Is South Korea drawing closer to China do you think?

The above hissed in response by: Don [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 23, 2006 7:42 AM

The following hissed in response by: Sachi


The Wikipedia article makes it seem as if Korea has a far stronger claim. What is the Big Lizard's view of what Wikipedia says?

Although Wikipedia is good for a rough background information, it is not suited to judge disputed legal issue one way or the other.

More reliable source says that 1951 San Francisco treaty clearly states that Takeshima Island to be returned to Japan.


The territorial clause on the Liancourt Rocks could indicate that the San Francisco Peace Treaty assigns the Liancourt Rocks to Japan. However, due to the contradictory nature of the various drafts of the treaty, Korea may still be free to establish that the “Korea” renounced in the San Francisco Peace Treaty included the Liancourt Rocks.

In any event. I am not saying Japan has the claim on the island.

The above hissed in response by: Sachi [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 23, 2006 6:05 PM

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