South Korea | Treasured Islands

A remote, rocky outcrop in the Sea of Japan is at the centre of a heated territorial dispute

The set of remote islands in the Sea of Japan claimed by both South Korea, which calls them Dokdo, and by Japan, which calls them Takeshima. DONG-A ILBO / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 September, 2013

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.

From 1910 to 1945, the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Japanese empire, a period marked by the imposition of the Japanese language on Korean citizens, the demolition of important historical buildings, and the removal of thousands of cultural artefacts from the country. After the country’s occupation ended with Japan’s World War II surrender in 1945, the Liancourt Rocks came to be seen as an emotive symbol of the country’s independence. Korea made a formal claim over the islands in 1952, when President Syngman Rhee issued the Presidential Declaration of Sovereignty over Adjacent Seas, which included the establishment of a boundary line demarcating an area of marine control—the Liancourt Rocks fell within this boundary.

In 2005, Japan renewed its own claim to the islets, in its Diplomatic Bluebook, a document it releases each year reviewing its foreign policy, and activities and relations with other countries. The 2005 version of the paper was the first time after Korean independence that Japan formally referred to the Liancourt Rocks as Japanese territory. The basis of Japan’s claim is still that the islets belonged to no one in 1905 when Japan annexed them, and were not specifically mentioned in the post-war San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, which included a list of Korean territories that Japan was to renounce.

Today, the South Korean government widely and vociferously criticises Japan’s claim to the islets. “We Korean people are very angry at Japan’s continued provocations over Dokdo Island, when they make false claims,” said Yuh Pok-keun, director of the South Korean government’s Territory and Oceans Affairs Division when I met him at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in central Seoul.

Yuh is in charge of seeing that the Dokdo issue is handled in accordance with international law, but he, consistent with the South Korean government’s official stance, rejects the idea of taking the two countries’ dispute up with the International Court of Justice, as Japan has repeatedly suggested. The South Korean government maintains that there is no genuine legal dispute and that entering into a legal battle would only lend credibility to Japan’s claim. (Officials from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul declined to comment for this story.)

Instead, the South Korean government has allocated billions to an extensive information campaign meant to convince everyone who will listen that the Liancourt Rocks are South Korean territory. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ budget for the campaign was 2.37 billion won (US$2.11 million) in 2011, which jumped to 3.90 billion (US$3.48 million) in 2012 and 6.22 billion (US$5.55 million) for this year. More than 350,000 copies of ‘Dokdo: Korea’s Beautiful Island’, a booklet detailing South Korea’s claim to the islets, were printed in 2012 and distributed through 160 diplomatic offices abroad. The booklet describes South Korea as exercising “irrefutable territorial sovereignty over Dokdo.” For anyone interested in learning the islets’ history, the South Korean government also has Dokdo-themed websites, and subsidises several institutes that conduct research into Dokdo and hold classes on the subject. Riders on Seoul’s large metro system can find scale models of the islets in many stations. Efforts to assert the country’s right to the islands aren’t limited to the government—South Korean weather reports always mention the weather on Dokdo, despite the fact that, according to the government, there are only three residents on the islands, apart from a small maritime police force. And a few years ago, a brand of headache medicine released a print ad with the slogan, “When Japan claims Dokdo, everyone in Korea gets a headache, and this is what they reach for.”

Up until Japan’s renewed claim over the islands in 2005, tourism to the Liancourt Rocks had been prohibited out of concern for their structural integrity—they are vulnerable to erosion, and boats travelling there create waves that can wear away the rocks. To demonstrate South Korea’s control of the island, the government permitted tourism for the first time in 2005, and South Koreans boarded boats over the rough waters. “We wish to show our strong sense of opposition to these provocations by visiting Dokdo,” Yuh said. “Visiting Dokdo means a personal realisation of Korean independence from Japanese occupation.” Recognising the growing interest in visiting the islands, the government in June 2009 revoked a rule limiting the number of visitors a day to 1,880.

“When I went there and saw it for the first time, amidst all the clouds and waves, I felt like I had become fully Korean,” said 81-year-old Nam Sang-ho, a retired South Korean civil servant. Nam was born in Korea when it was a Japanese colony, and spent his early education studying in Japanese instead of his native Korean, and was forced each day, along with his classmates, to make a bow of allegiance at an altar with an image of the Japanese emperor. Visiting Dokdo was to him almost a pilgrimage. “I went there because it is a kind of duty as a Korean,” Nam said. “It’s a very beautiful island, and holds a kind of spiritual appeal for us.”

Hwang Hak-yeon operates a travel agency in Seoul that organises tours to Dokdo. “Opening Dokdo to tourism was a way of drawing attention to our sovereignty over it and building national pride,” she said. Her business had specialised in organising honeymoons for newly married couples until 2010, when she identified tours to the Liancourt Rocks as a growth area. Now, organising travel to the islands is her main business in the summer (trips to Southeast Asia dominate her winter business). Most of her clients to the Rocks are people past retirement age, many with memories of life under the Japanese. Hwang believes that South Korea must overcome its small size and low international profile relative to Japan in order to strengthen its claim to the Rocks. “Imagine if two people claimed the same cell phone as theirs,” she said. “If I know one of them somewhat, I’d be more likely to listen to their side. They may not even be telling the truth. More people know about Japan, so if we keep quiet, they could quietly come to control Dokdo.”

Getting to the Liancourt Rocks is a two-leg boat journey: visitors must go from Pohang on South Korea’s east coast, to Ulleung Island, then to the islands. Booking a tour is always something of a gamble, because high waves and poor visibility often force the tours to be cancelled at short or no notice. Even when the tours do go ahead, travellers on most tours are not allowed to step onto the islands, and instead circle on their boat for an hour or so, taking photos and recording video.

The number of visitors has been increasing ever since tourism was permitted. In 2005, the first year that tourism to the Rocks was possible, 41,134 South Koreans made the trip. That number increased to 179,621 in 2011, 205,778 in 2012; 126,471 people had visited this year, as of June 31. Hwang and other operators these days have to turn away prospective visitors to the Rocks, because all their tours are booked up until the end of August.

Not all of those travellers to the Rocks are motivated by a sense of patriotic duty. The increased tourism to the islets is taking place alongside a return to nature in South Korea, a densely populated country of busy cities and hasty industrialisation. There is almost no unspoiled nature in the country, and it can be difficult to find clean, peaceful places. “For me, travelling to Dokdo had nothing to do with any patriotic or nationalistic things,” said Kang Deok-woo, a 28-year-old teacher. “I don’t really want to go there and be tagged as someone who went there to protect our country. I went for the nature, just because it’s a pretty island.”