Small Islets Causing Big Trouble Between South Korea And Japan – Analysis


By Selcuk Colakoglu

In an era when forming a security alliance between Japan and South Korea against China is being discussed, rising tensions over the islets of Dokdo (in Korean)/ Takeshima (in Japanese) undermines the prospects for such an alliance.

The latest crisis emerged with Lee Myung-Bak, South Korean President, setting foot on the Dokdo/Takeshima Island. A high level visit on the part of South Korea to the islets that is the source of a sovereignty dispute between the two countries led Japan to take drastic measures to the level of calling its ambassador in Seoul back. Japanese authorities also stated that they can bring the issue to the agenda of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Japan’s retaliation to both South Korea and China was not late, as the latter also has problems with Japan to be resolved concerning the islets of Senkaku/Diaoyu. Yuichiro Hata, Minister of Transportation, Tourism and Land; and Jin Matsubara, Chairman of National Public Security Commission visited the Yasukuni Shrine on 15 August 2012, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of WWII.

The visit paid by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine, which was built for the memory of Japanese martyrs and which includes the names of Japanese soldiers who lost their lives during WWII, is the upmost reason behind furious censures by Korean and Chinese publics. Japan sent another message especially to South Korea also by reinitiating direct negotiations with North Korea in August 2012 after a long break. Such disputes around islets strongly influence bilateral relations. But can Japan and South Korea overcome this situation?

Legal ambiguity

Lioncourt Rocks: Other names: Dokdo, Takeshima, Tok Islets
Lioncourt Rocks: Other names: Dokdo, Takeshima, Tok Islets

Dokdo/Takeshima islets constitute a problem between Seoul and Tokyo, a situation similar to the crisis around Kardak rocks between Turkey and Greece. They are small pieces of land over which sovereignty is disputed. These islands were not an issue under focus for both sides as they are uninhabitable by humans. Such islets and rocks were largely ignored and considered not-worth formal appropriation. On the other hand, with the inclusion of sovereignty zones such as continental shelves and exclusive economic zones within the definitions of international law, such rocky islands which will pave the way for significant economic gains became a major concern. Therefore in many places around the World, sovereignty disputes similar to that around Dokdo/Takeshima islets became evident.

Actually, customary international law entitles islets such as Dokdo/Takeshima neither with 200 miles of continental shelves for each and nor with any exclusive economic zones, since these islets are identified as “uninhabitable or not having their own economic zones”. Existing international laws entitle such islets usually and only with 12 miles of territorial waters. Therefore the rights accorded to Dokdo/Takeshima by contemporary law of the sea are not yet clear.

Barometer for political tensions

There is no divergence between the features of other, similar disputes over islets and the dispute between South Korea and Japan up to this point. But whenever bilateral relations reach a setback, the dispute over Dokdo/Takeshime comes to the fore as a factor escalating the existing tensions. Against Japan’s statements toward reclaiming the islets in July 2008, South Korea decided to populate the islets as it already held de facto control over the area. In this direction, Seoul began preparing to construct a hotel, a museum, a naval base and a small village on the islets.

Especially for the South Koreans, Dokdo became a parameter of anti-Japanese sentiments inherited via historical memories. Seoul asserting full sovereignty over Dokdo carries much significance in the sense that it will prove Korea is no more overwhelmed by Japanese dominance. South Korean media relates the issue to Japan’s imperialist policies in the region before 1945, from this point forth.

Besides the war crimes committed by Japan during pre-1945 era, the harsh truth that more than 200,000 women from Koreas, China and the Philippines were forced to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers is often brought up to the agenda. Some even regard the nuclear bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagazaki by the United States as something reasonable for putting an end to Japanese imperialism. Such harsh discourse do not leave any elbow room for neither Japan nor South Korea to discuss or plan the future of bilateral relations and regional issues together. On the other hand, while Seoul and Tokyo do not cede their claims over Dokdo/Takeshima, they refrain from transforming this dispute into a diplomatic crisis which will harm bilateral economic ties.

Will the problem be solved?

Disputes over islets such as the case in Dokdo/Takeshima are not rare instances around the world. In practice, there are two ways of reaching exact solutions for such disputes. The first way is two sides coming together in order to find a solution. But this method usually doesn’t succeed although it sounds idealistic. The other way to resolve such disputes is coming to terms in order to bring the topic to the agenda of the ICJ. However, as states fear the risk of facing unfavorable court decisions, they usually do not prefer to appeal to the ICJ. If the dispute is transformed into a domestic issue entitled with nationalist fervor, appealing to the ICJ but losing the case may become politically too risky.

An alternative way preferred by states which have disputes over marine space is doing nothing to resolve the dispute and resorting political showdown at the same time. The true winners in such scenarios are the states which de facto control the islets.

In the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute as well, it is clear that both sides resort to the third way and are trapped by a political deadlock. The dispute evolved into a “national cause” for Japanese and Korean publics; therefore it is nearly impossible for both governments to take political risks to find a solution. While South Korea states that Dokdo/Takeshima is part of its own borderlands and it will not even negotiate on this matter, Japan is proposing to bring the issue to the ICJ. Countries which have de facto control the disputed territories prefer not to bring an appeal to the ICJ because of the risk of losing the case. As a matter of fact, while Japan refuses to bring the matter of Senkaku/Diaoyu to the ICJ, China and Taiwan wish to appeal to the court since they have sovereignty claims over the islands. In the current situation, South Korea endeavors to take advantage of its control over the islands. As a response, Japan regularly claims Dokdo/Takeshima to keep the matter hot on the agenda.

Ultimately, the most prominent truth highlighted by this crisis is that relations between Korea and Japan will not be easily normalized in a political sense. Unless such disputes are resolved, it doesn’t seem possible for two giant economies such as Japan and South Korea cooperating in depth. Nevertheless, Tokyo and Seoul are aware of this challenge. Through the agencies of Japanese Minister of Finance Koriki Jojima and his Korean counterpart Bahk Jae Wan, both sides decided on freezing the island crisis during the meetings of IMF and the World Bank in October 2012 in order to avoid any harm to bilateral economic ties. However, Japan and South Korea are still far more behind overcoming the confidence gap between them.

Selcuk Colakoglu
USAK Center for Asia-Pacific Studies


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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