CELEBRATING AFTER South Korea’s bronze medal football victory over Japan in August in the 2012 London Olympics, midfielder Park Jong-woo was photographed running shirtless on the pitch, holding a South Korean flag and a sign that read, “Dokdo is our land” in the Korean Hangul script. For this gesture, Park was banned for two games and fined $3,781 by FIFA, which found him guilty of violating rules that prohibit political statements at the games.
Park’s act was a gesture of support for South Korea’s claim of sovereignty over a group of islands called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan—they are also known as the Liancourt Rocks after a French ship that came close to being wrecked on them in 1849. A set of jagged, rocky islets in the Sea of Japan, the Liancourt Rocks are located 215 kilometres from mainland South Korea and 211 kilometres from Japan’s main island, Honshu. They are located in a rough patch of sea, their edges sharpened by erosion from the winds that blow constantly and the foamy waves that crash on the shore. With a total area of around 0.19 square kilometres, they are not of much strategic or economic significance, and yet the islands have for many decades been the centre of a heated dispute between South Korea and Japan, both of whom claim ownership of them.
There is no clear history of settlement on the islets, a fact that has complicated claims over their ownership, as neither Japan nor South Korea has ever been able to point to the existence of a civilian population there. The islets were annexed by Japan during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, with the intention of using them as an observation point to monitor the activity of Russian ships in the area. At that time, Japan argues, the islets were terra nullius, land belonging to no one.