On Thursday, 14 August 2008, The Australian carried a surprising full-page advertisement asserting South Korea’s sovereignty over the islets of Dokdo, the control over which is being disputed by Japan and the Republic of Korea. Signed by an obscure organisation known only as ForTheNextGeneration.com, this advertisement of such scale in the major Australian newspaper must have cost a fortune. A month ago a similar advertisement was carried by The New York Times and financed by a popular South Korean singer, Kim Jang-hoon, (41) who teamed up with a freelance Korean public relations expert, Seo Kyoung-duk. Both of them promised to publish the ad in the major American and foreign newspapers to reiterate the Korean claim for the disputed islets, the history of ancient kingdoms and the truth about the sexual slavery institutionalized by the Japanese Military during the WWII.
The advertisement, with the headline of “Do You Know?” state “For the last 2,000 years, the body of water between Korean and Japan has been called the “East Sea”. Dokdo (two islands) located in the East Sea is a part of Korean territory. The Japanese government must acknowledge this fact”. The name “East Sea” itself has also been one of the most controversial issues between the two states. The Korean governments (both in the North and the South) traditionally name the body of water the “East Sea”, while the Japanese government insists on the name “Sea of Japan.” The advertisement also asks for cooperation between the two governments to pass down accurate facts of history to the next generation and realise peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.
This publication comes amid the open conflict between the two countries fueled by the Japanese government’s recent attempt to add Dokdo to a part of Japanese territory in a new educational guideline for junior high schools. This move sparked outrage in South Korea and led the government to recall its ambassador from Tokyo in July 2008. There are further fears that the trilateral summit involving China, Japan and South Korea, scheduled in Japan in September may not go ahead if the heightened tensions over the disputed territories continue. A reckless decision of the US agency, Board of Geographic Names, to redefine the islets as an area of “undesignated sovereignty” rather than Korean territory, also infuriated the Korean government and prompted US President George W. Bush to intervene on behalf Koreans.
The territorial dispute between Japan and Korea is over Liancourt Rocks (the name given to the group by French whalers in 1849), which is a small group of volcanic rocks, sticking out of water, located 215 km east of the Korean peninsula and about equidistant from the western coast of Japan. Including surrounding reefs the total area of these two bare rocks doesn’t exceed 210 square km. There is no drinking water and therefore, until recently, they were not populated. However, the sea around it is rich in fishery recourses and the surrounding seabed covers extensive deposits of natural gas. In our times, when the price for natural resources is growing fast, this is an important reason to contest even the uninhabited rocks. Moreover, Dokdo (“solitary islet”) is the focus of patriotic passion because the Koreans regard it as the first Japanese seizure of their territory in 1905, five years before the Korea was annexed and kept as a colony of Japan until August 1945. All that time, Takeshima (“bamboo islet”) was under the jurisdiction of the Oki islands Branch Office of Shimane Prefecture of Japan
After the WWII, Japanese fishermen were expelled from waters adjacent to Korea by Americans because of so-called MacArthur Line. During the Korean War, South Korean fishermen solely enjoyed fishery in that area without being annoyed by any competitors. However, the MacArthut Line was to be abolished by the San Francisco Peace Treaty (September 1951). Article 2 (a) of the Treaty indicated which islands should renounce but did not include Liancourt Rocks (mistakenly or intentionally). ROK hoped the MacArthur Line would be kept indefinitely and negotiated with USA but their plea was rejected. Instead, the Americans advised Korea to negotiate with Japanese government, but at that time they had no diplomatic relations with each other. In January 1952, the President of ROK Syngman Rhee suddenly issued a Declaration concerning maritime sovereignty, with which he installed the so-called “Syngman Rhee Line” and unilaterally included Liancourt Rocks in the Korean territory.
Foreign fishing boats, which were mostly Japanese, that violated the Syngman Rhee Line were often gunned by South Korea or detained. Japan proposed to go to International Court of Justice or United Nations, but the ROK rejected this proposal.Even after the resumption of diplomatic relations between Japan and Korea in 1965, Liancourt Rocks were kept occupied by Korean coast guards and this issue is still unresolved. Inaugurated in February 2008, the current ROK President, Lee Myung-bak, is the third successive president to have come into office offering a fresh start to South Korea-Japan relations but he has been wrong-footed by provocations from Tokyo.
These days both sides are very active in looking for historical evidence that Dokdo/Takeshima has always been their land. But it does not seem to be leading in the right direction. The two countries once concluded the Japan-ROK Fisheries Agreement, which entered into force in January 1999. They agreed to the establishment of “provisional common waters” around Dokdo/Takeshima without prejudice to the title of this island. Since then, however, Japanese fishing boats are still being shut out of the fishing grounds in the area. The local fishermen in Shimane Prefecture become increasingly impatient and discontented with this situation. Such situation lead to the repetitive announcements of Shimane Prefecture that Takeshima belongs to Japan. So, I believe that as far as fishery is concerned, Koreans and Japanese should simply stick to the original agreement. What will happen when they try to extract the natural resources like gas – is another story.
As for “East Sea”, this is the one name that Japan will probably never recognise as it lies directly west of Japan. Imagine the U.S. calling the Pacific the “East Ocean”. It would never happen because it’s impractical. Also, in retaliation Japan might try to rename the universally recognised “Korea Strait”, which separates the two countries. If the Koreans really want to get rid of the name which is so full of colonial memories, they should think about a compromise instead of something Japan would reject outright. For example, I would propose “The Sea of Peace and Prosperity”. Currently, we at the Australian National University are working on the project called Asia Beyond Conflict (ABC), which will soon offer some solutions to conflicts like this one.