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The Case of Dokdo: A South Korean Island

Author: Han Sung Lim 

James A. Garfield once said that “Territory is but the body of a nation; the people who inhabit its hills and valleys and its soul, its spirit, its life.” Territory embodies not only a nation’s physical boundaries but also the integrity of the nation; its essence. The expansion of territory correlates to the fundamental growth of the nation, which determines its prosperity. Thus, history is characterized by conquest for territorial exploit; the religious wars of 1600s were fundamentally aimed towards the acquisition of land; European superpowers ensnared colonial territories under the “just” reason of imperialism, and today nations try to expand their sphere of influence by claiming direct/indirect rule over islands, or even protruded coral reefs. The controversy over Dokdo stems from the same logic; the acquisition of Dokdo may potentially reap insurmountable benefits for the internal growth of a nation. Dokdo is a beautiful island, renowned for its exquisite biological diversity, vast resource deposits, and priceless economic value. Though Korea is the irrefutable owner of the islands, Japanese right-wing fundamentalists claim ownership over the Dokdo islands. Moreover, they have recently expanded their political clout into education, and have disseminated fabricated information into the classrooms. Despite all these developments, Koreans have successfully protected Dokdo for centuries. Nevertheless, it has become ever more crucial for us citizens to actively express our love and support toward Dokdo; as the saying goes: “to preserve one’s treasure is an everlasting struggle”.

Dokdo is a natural treasure that cannot be translated into monetary standards. The Dokdo Islets retain substantial deposits of natural resources such as gas hydrate, natural gas, maritime petroleum resources, etc. Dokdo is believed to be abundant in ‘Gas Hydrate’ in particular, which is a solid state of natural gas whose chief constituent is methane. It is recognized as promising substitute to fossil fuel energy; according to the U.S Energy Information Administration, 1 cubic foot of gas hydrate releases 164 cubic feet of natural gas, providing a high energy output. Thus, the usage of gas hydrate as a future energy resource is an active field of interest in Germany, USA, India, Taiwan, China, and obviously Japan. Commercial extraction/production of such resources would clearly be an economic boon for Korea, which currently relies on foreign imports to satisfy its resource demands. Researchers speculate Dokdo’s gas hydrate deposit to be 600 million metric tons, which approximates to 252 trillion won in financial terms. In addition to its resource value, Dokdo is ecological gem. It is home to at least 107 species of resident and migratory birds, including the streaked shearwater, storm petrel, black-tailed gull, and other endangered species, according to an October 2007 survey by the Ministry of Environment. Dokdo’s underwater vegetation ecosystem shares striking similarities to the South Sea, Jeju Island, and tropical regions of Northern Hemisphere, yet has unique characteristics that suggest that it can be classified as an entirely discrete ecosystem. Its subtle geological position makes it an ample fishing ground, attracting highly migratory fish stock. Its beauty also attracts tourists on an international scale; the number of tourists has shown steady increase since 2005, and more than 205,000 have registered in 2012. Moreover, its function as a territorial indicator enables Korea to extend its EEZ further into the east sea, ensuring 200 nautical miles into Korean hands. Thus, Dokdo’s various attributes give it its priceless value.

It is clear that Dokdo has significant industrial, ecological, economic, and territorial value. Then the question arises behind who has territorial jurisdiction over the islets. Nevertheless, historical evidence corroborate Korea’s claim over the islets. Following the Russo-Japanese war, Japan annexed Korea in a series of agreements between 1905 and 1910. During this period, Japan claimed territorial jurisdiction over the islands by officially incorporating them into the Shimane Prefecture, a notice which dictated that “The islands should be designated as ‘Takeshima’ and placed under the jurisdiction of Oki Islands.” However, these treaties cannot be regarded as legally binding documents, indicating valid cession of national sovereignty and relinquishment of territorial holdings. The Korean Minister of Home Affairs rejected Japanese claim, stating, “It is totally groundless for the Japanese to lay claim to Dokdo and I am shocked at the report”, and responded by issuing Directive No. III on April 29, 1906. Furthermore, the Korean citizens resisted Japanese annexation through protests and uprisings, thus invalidating Japanese argument of a cessation under popular consent. Following the demise of Japanese occupation, the status of Dokdo (Liancourt Rocks) was not addressed in Article 2 of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. The treaty recognized Korea’s independence, and Japan’s retrocession of the islands of Qualpart, Port Hamilton, Dagelet, but excluded Liancourt Rocks. However, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers then removed Japanese authority over Dokdo, and incorporated it under US armed forces control as a bombing range. Thus, by then Dokdo was clearly outside of Japanese jurisprudence. Shortly after, South Korean president Syngman Rhee issued the Korean Presidential Proclamation over the Adjacent Sea in January 18. 1952. The proclamation promulgated Korean sovereignty over Liancourt Rocks, by creating the “Rhee Line”. Japan responded by officially declaring its non-recognition of Korea claims, which ignited the modern controversy. The current Japanese government argues that Dokdo was included in Korea’s cession of sovereignty and that it was historically occupied by Japan in the past. The first claim has been nullified above, and the second is also historically invalid.

Historical documents indicate that Korea had a prolonged history of occupation and corresponding Japanese recognition of Korean claims. Sejong Sillok Jiriji, a government publication on geography section of the annals of King Sejong’s Reign, provides geographical accounts of Korean territorial records of Korean territory; it states, “Usan (Dokdo) Mureung (Ulleungdo)… The two islands are not far apart from each other and thus visible on a clear day.” Records pertaining to Dokdo are also found in other government publications, including Sinjeung Dongguk Yeoji Seungnam,1531;  Dongguk Munheon, Biggo, 1770; Man-gi Yoram, 1808; and Jeungbo Munheon Biggo. Moreover, diplomatic negotiations between Joseon and the Edo shogunate regarding the Ulleungdo Disputes confirmed Joseon’s sovereignty over Olleungdo and its ancillary island, Dokdo. The Edo shogunate even issued a directive prohibiting all Japanese from making passage towards Ulleungdo in January 28, 1696, after receiving a confirmation that neither Ulleungdo nor Dokdo was in possession of Tottori-han, a Japanese feudal clan. Even before Japanese colonization, the 1877 directive issued by the Dajokan(Grand Council of State), Japan’s supreme decision-making political body during the Meiji period, reaffirmed the Ulleungdo dispute negotiations and concluded that “our country[Japan] has nothing to do with them[Takeshima(Ulleungdo) and Dokdo].” Thus, Japanese history confirms Korea’s territorial sovereignty over the islets, even during the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

Korea has a stronger title claim to Dokdo islets on the basis of international law. Analysis on international law requires scrutiny on internationally accepted principles and legal precedents. There is currently no consensual standard on how to resolve territorial dispute, however, customary international law provides principles which international tribunals can resolve sovereignty disputes. This includes the following: (1) cecasion (2) prescription (3) occupation (4) subjugation. According to R.Y. Jennings in The Acquisition of Territory in International Law, “The cession of a territory means the renunciation made by one State in favor of another of the rights and title which the former may have to the territory in question. This is affected by a treaty of cession expressing agreement to the transfer.” A prerequisite to this principle is the willful consent of the receiving state. However, the previous paragraph already expounds why Japanese annexation cannot be considered as example case of cessation. The Japanese government may appeal to the standard of subjugation; a state acquires territorial sovereignty through military victory. Yet, even acquisition by armed conflict requires either international recognition or a treaty of cession to be legitimate. Japan’s involvement in the Hague Secret Emissary Affair is an example of the Japanese government trying to procure international support by alleged means. Moreover, the Eulsa Treaty of 1905 and the Korean annexation treaty of 1910 were ratified under Japanese military pressure; thus, Japan fails to fulfill requirements of a “willing” treaty of cession as well. On the other hand, Korea satisfies the requirements of customary international law. Prescription is the process of acquiring territory through a continuous and undisturbed exercise of sovereignty lasting long enough to create a widely held conviction that the possession conforms to the standards of the international community. Though highly debated upon, the principle supports Korea’s territorial claims; Korea has possessed Dokdo for over thousands of years. Occupation, often correlated with terra nullius, is the appropriation by state of a territory by establishing administration over the territory. This requires both the intention of the state to act as sovereign and verifiable exercise of authority; both of which is fulfilled by past and present Korean governments. The Island of Palmas dispute between the US and Netherlands, the Clipperton Island case between Mexico and France, and the Eastern Greenland case are historical precedents that support Korea’s position over Japanese. Thus, Korea has the upper hand when considering international law.

Despite disputes, Korea has successfully protected Dokdo from environmental and foreign threats through governmental action, active citizen participation, and sacrifices made by brave heroes. The government has maintained a strong diplomatic stance, by officially declaring that “the government will deal firmly and resolutely with any provocation and will continue to defend Korea’s territorial integrity over Dokdo.” This position has been reinforced by active governmental action. A Korean police force base, backed by the Korean main military, has been established on the islets. Lighthouses and other governmental facilities have been erected and are in operation in Dokdo. The government has enacted Article 1 of the [Act on the Sustainable Use of Dokdo Island], Article 6 of [Act on National Land Planning and Utilization], and Article 25 of [Cultural Properties Protection Law], which have created a check and balance system for sustainable development and environmental preservation. On the citizen level, grass-root NGO participation accompanied with group and individual campaign activities have contributed to the growth of public awareness towards Dokdo.  Patriotic individuals have also volunteered to reside on the islets. Finally, heroes have struggled to protect our sovereignty over the islets. An Yong-bok, a fisherman of the Joseon dynasty, reinstated Joseon’s territorial sovereignty over Dokdo; it is recorded in the Annals of King Sukjong’s Reign that he firmly informed Japanese officials that “Matsushima is Jasando[Dokdo] and it is Korean territory”. Japanese documents, including Takeshima kiji, Inpu nenpyo, and Takeshimako, confirm Ahn Yong-bok’s passages to Japan. The Dokdo Volunteer Forces also played an indispensable role in protecting Dokdo. They disembarkened on Dokdo in 1953, and fought against Japanese encroachment until the government took over the responsibility in 1956.  Thus it is clear that Korea has been maintaining a stalwart grasp over Dokdo, and had protecting Dokdo throughout history.   

Yet, the Japanese government has managed to incorporate distorted history into school textbooks. Recently, the Japanese government has officially expressed denial towards Japanese imperialist exploit. Mariko Oi, Japanese BBC correspondent, illustrates the realities of history education in Japan. He points out that only 19 of the 357 pages of a certain history book dealt with events between 1931 and 1945. He also points out that Japanese led war atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre,  and prostitution corps were either omitted or included in a small foot note. Today there are 30 unique textbooks for social studies from 5 different publishers, in Japanese primary schools, and an additional 8 textbooks for the study of history as part of Japanese Social Studies curriculum. The government’s textbook authorization system evaluates the textbooks and verifies approval. Though guild-lines dictate that the context must be “objective, impartial, and free from errors”, major controversy has been brought up from neighboring nations. The Dokdo issue, in particular, is one example. According to Reuters, “new elementary school textbooks describe islands called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese as Japan’s ‘sovereign territory’ and dismiss South Korean occupation as unlawful.” The changes are expected to be applied in 6 of 8 new textbooks beginning in early 2015. Moreover, Ari-rang News has reported that six of the 8 textbooks in elementary school curriculum would assert that South Korea is “illegally” occupying Dokdo while two others carry maps that mark the island as part of Japanese territory. Mariko admits that he initially had difficulty sympathizing with China and Korea on issues pertaining to Japanese imperialism, until his matriculation into a French university, where he conducted substantive research on the Rape of Nanjing. Likewise, young students in Japan, intellectually restricted by the meticulously fabricated education curriculum, would inevitably develop a lopsided interpretation towards history and current issues. This education policy would further radicalize public perception towards historical based issues and exacerbate the status quo. Thus, it is important for Korea to cooperate with Japanese intellectuals to address historically disputed issues, and inform the Japanese public, especially the next generation. However, delicate as this issue is, it is important for the Korean public not to resort to nationalism; the crux is to slowly develop consensus built upon mutual respect, and to maintain a democratically mature approach. This approach should be concerted by both the governmental and civil level, and should appeal to wide public spectrum of Japanese society.

There is a sign in Texas, Dallas that says “Back off Japan! Dokdo Island Belongs to Korea”. Dokdo is Korean territory. This is lucidly proven by historical accounts, and is supported by customary international law. It is a beautiful landmark teeming with life, filled to the brim with natural resources. Dokdo Guards stand guard every day, ready to face foreign treats lingering beyond the horizon. Yet, innocent Japanese students are blindly convinced that Dokdo is allegedly occupied; they are under the whim of an irresponsible government trying its best to erase the past. Though Dokdo is rightfully ours, we should never be complacent. International predisposition towards dialogue and world peace is never a guarantee for non-aggression or territorial exploit. Nations are inherently interest driven, which is why Japan is amassing historical evidence against our claims and garnering international support. Let us all be more intent to our nation, take a more active stance and express our love and support to Dokdo.

Han Sung Lim is a Sophomore at Tufts University studying International Relations and Film and Media Studies. 


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