Japan-South Korea Relations: The Dokdo Dispute – OpEd


Two small, rugged islets protrude from the waters of the Sea of Japan around halfway between Japan and Korea. There has been a diplomatic disagreement between the two countries for over 300 years over the Liancourt Rocks (also known as the Dokdo Islands or the Takeshima Islands, depending on whom you ask).

This argument has been going on for a while. South Korea claims that after a fight between Japanese and Korean fishermen in 1696, Japan officially acknowledged Dokdo as part of Korea. However, in 1905, the islands were acquired by Japan before its occupation of the peninsula, which lasted for 35 years until 1945, even though they were ostensibly within the administrative jurisdiction of Korea’s Uldo County. After World War II, the islands were “rightly” returned to Korea, as claimed by the latter. The country of Japan has strong objections.

Relations between the governments of South Korea and Japan remain tense due to the ongoing dispute over Dokdo and Takeshima. The Japanese government released a guide for textbook producers and educators in 2008, stressing the need to teach pupils that the islands are part of Japan. The South Korean government recalled its ambassador from Japan as a result. After Lee Myung-bak made history in 2012 by becoming the first South Korean president to visit the islands, Japan recalled its ambassador to Seoul in protest. The National Museum of Territory and Sovereignty in Japan will reopen in 2020. Japan, South Korea, and North Korea all claim sovereignty over a group of islands called Takeshima, which are shown as Japanese territory at a museum in Tokyo. The government of South Korea, which also claims sovereignty over the islands and refers to them as Dokdo, openly criticized Japan over the reopening and asked for the museum to be shut down as a result.

South Koreans see the islands as a source of national pride and a tangible manifestation of their fight against Japanese colonialism. Some Koreans see Japan’s claim to the islands as an admission that Japan did not colonize Korea, even though Japan annexed the islands from Korea in 1905. Dokdo and Takeshima are strategically significant to both the Japanese and South Korean governments due to their proximity to key natural resources, most notably gas, and rich fishing grounds. Since Japan’s territorial claim to Dokdo and Takeshima is central to its conflicts with China, Taiwan, and Russia, any concession on this front would undoubtedly undermine Japan’s position on those other islands. Recently, there was public outrage in South Korea because the islands were labeled on a map of Japan on the Tokyo Olympics website. South Korea demanded a correction be made immediately, but Japan refused. Outside of the two countries, many people may view these islands as unimportant and not worth risking a breach in ties between two of the world’s most powerful economies. However, the islets provoke strong feelings on both sides, and a resolution to the territorial conflict has been hard.

         Since 2005, Tokyo has observed Takeshima Day on February 22 to renew its demands for the repatriation of the islands. After each incident, the Japanese foreign ministry summons its official in Seoul to file a formal complaint. Japan has continued its attempts to bring attention to the matter through websites and media coverage, highlighting the fact that on three separate occasions during the 1950s, it requested South Korea have the International Court of Justice settle the question of sovereignty. Each time, Seoul has become worse.

Despite Japan’s and South Korea’s highly stated claims to sovereignty and equally forceful rebuttals, there have been no signs of escalation until lately. However, in December 2018, tensions increased after Japan accused the South Korean navy of locking its fire-control radar onto a Japanese maritime patrol plane for many minutes in waters near the islands. An “extremely dangerous” situation, as was described according to Tokyo’s assessment.

To sum up, Japan and South Korea need to work through their historical differences so they can focus on security challenges like China, North Korea, and Russia and preserve a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. However, the basic problems of prior accords (the 10th anniversary of the 2015 “comfort women” deal and the 60th anniversary of the Treaty on Basic Relations) remain if apologies are used solely for external geopolitical security concerns or economic gains. Reconciliation, security, and commercial accords between Japan and South Korea have been spearheaded by elites but have failed to address victims’ requests. Lack of long-term planning and a focus on the state ensure that the few remaining survivors will never be able to find peace. Since the United States has never truly acknowledged its part in covering up the original sin, it is important that it not be seen as using reconciliation as a distraction from addressing regional security issues. The possibility of two key allies misinterpreting anything less than complete support as a snub might be mitigated with a limited U.S. mediation role.    


Simon Hutagalung

Simon Hutagalung is a retired diplomat from the Indonesian Foreign Ministry and received his master's degree in political science and comparative politics from the City University of New York. The opinions expressed in his articles are his own.

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