By Norman Cherkis
Less than five percent of Americans know anything about Dokdo. They have not, for all intents and purposes, ever heard of it. Fewer have any knowledge of the controversy and ``crisis" surrounding the small group of rocks that stick up inside the middle of a sea in which they have never sailed, let alone heard of.
The only Americans of non-Asian heritage directly or indirectly involved with the East Sea are:
1. Military people involved with exercises on, over or under the sea.
2. Diplomatic personnel involved in defusing ``crises" between Korea and Japan or imperial Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.
3. Toponymists (place-name specialists) interested in little-known places.
4. Producers of international gazettes, maps and atlases.
5. Contestants in international geography scholarship conferences
6. Interested people like myself who care about such things, and make it their business to find out the truth about critical places in the world having no real importance, except for their proximity to important places.
Dokdo is one of those places.
Ask a Korean American in Annandale, Virginia; Houston, Texas; San Francisco, California; or someone of Korean ancestry in Brazil; South Africa; Australia; Germany; or virtually any other place in the world, and expect to immediately receive at least a five-minute dissertation about why Dokdo belongs to Korea.
Koreans are very knowledgeable about this subject. But most only know that the territory was taken through extortion and annexation by imperial Japan a bit more than 100 years ago, and that after the end of World War II, it was supposed to be returned to its rightful owner ― Korea ― under the terms of surrender by the victorious Allies.
That is all that matters, and Koreans are very emotional about the issue.
Dokdo was originally to be returned to Korea. Under the 1946 Supreme Allied Commander for the Allied Powers Instruction No. 677, Dokdo, then called ``Liancourt Rocks," was specifically designated an island to be returned to Korea.
In the final peace treaty signed in San Francisco in 1961, however, Dokdo was considered insignificant and thereby omitted from the agreement.
Japan said the ``sin of omission" in the treaty negated Korea's claim to the territory. Japan continues to make counter claims to the territory, even though Korea has occupied it since 1953.
Most Koreans outside of Korea (or descendents thereof) do not know of the more international significance of Dokdo: territorial claims, fishing and mineral rights.
In territorial rights, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea makes certain assumptions. If Korea is in possession of Dokdo, it will enjoy claim to the sea and seafloor territory to a line midway between Dokdo and Japan.
If Japan has ownership, Tokyo will officially change the islets' name to ``Takeshima," and the seafloor boundary line will move to a line midway between the islets and Ulleung Island. The important issue is not about fishing rights because existing bilateral treaties govern fishing in the East Sea. Rather the important issue is natural gas.
Neither Korea nor Japan has major hydrocarbon energy resources. Below the East Sea area of the Pacific Ocean and indeed, most of seas in the world, however, there exists, in various locations and quantities ``gas hydrates," or methane gas frozen with water, on top of and beneath the sea floor.
The existence of ``frozen gas" on the seafloor has come to light over the past 35 years. When collected from the sea methane gas that has frozen around a crystal of water, will burn when touched by a flame, momentarily creating ``frozen fire."
But it also evaporates into the atmosphere as soon as it reaches the melting point, leaving only a drop of fresh water in its place. It is formed by complex chemical processes, but once deposited on or in the sea floor, it could hold a partial solution to a nation's energy dependence.
The problem, however, is that it is not yet technologically possible to extract methane hydrates in commercial quantities from the sea floor and use it as fuel.
Japan is working on such a program to extract what might be commercial quantities from the Nankai Trough on the eastern side of Honshu Island, but it will be another eight to 10 years before it will be technologically feasible to mine gas hydrates. The sea floor around Dokdo, however, shows promise based on scientific studies in the region. That is the true value of Dokdo.
The rocks themselves are worthless from a commercial perspective. They are the remains of an old volcano one million to two million years ago. Only one place on the islets is suitable for a house or group of small houses. Altogether, the islands can support about 40 people with land. But there is no farming and no fresh water, except for rainwater. The only permanent residents are lighthouse keepers, and the islands are protected by a contingent of Korean police.
Nonetheless the continuous occupation of Dokdo firmly establishes Korea as the rightful owner of the islets.
The rocks are a danger to shipping because they lie in an area where fog often occurs. The West ``discovered" Dokdo in 1849 when the French whaling ship Le Liancourt was almost shipwrecked on them, averting disaster at the last possible moment. The ship left its legacy, however, by informing the Western world of Dokdo's existence and named it ``Liancourt Rocks." That name is still used today in most Western navigational maps and charts.
The world is becoming more educated on Dokdo, albeit very slowly. As late as 1984, the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency used ''Liancourt Rocks'' as the primary name and included as an alternate name ``Tok-To" on nautical charts. After 1984, however, the name, ``Tok-To" disappeared from subsequent printings of charts in the region. Only ``Liancourt Rocks" remains in print.
The reason for this is that the United States does not want to side with either Korea or Japan on the issue. ``It is," sources say, ``up to the disputing nations to come to an agreement on the issue. The United States does not wish to offend either of its friends, allies and major trading partners in the region by taking a position with either of the disputants, and intends to remain neutral on the issue."
About two weeks ago, a ''crisis" occurred ― at least in the eyes of Koreans. The U.S. Board for Geographic Names, which standardizes place names for use on all U.S. government publications and maps, changed the name, ``Tok-To," from its Korean gazetteer to the newly initiated category ``undesignated sovereignty." This process was about two years in the making. The task was completed in the second week of July. Unfortunately, the first entry was by coincidence ``Tok-To." Other places will be added as time permits.
These decisions were made more than two years ago to conveniently have a gazetteer section contain the names of disputed places worldwide. Moving the name of Dokdo to the new category was not a new U.S. policy statement, but rather, just computer ``housekeeping" to make the gazetteer more ``user-friendly."
Korea, however, mistakenly took the action to be a policy change and made the issue a cause celebre ― an incident of such major proportions that the Korean ambassador to Washington filed a formal objection with the White House. This caused U.S. President George W. Bush to order the U.S. board to reverse the action made earlier. Additionally, he had the Dokdo issue placed on his agenda for discussion in a bilateral summit in Seoul Aug. 6.
It is unfortunate that an unknowing population can interpret such small events in the wrong way without knowing all of the facts. Likewise it is also unfortunate that such small events can become major crises when they are not, but are perceived as such due to emotional reactions. The U.S. position on the islets has not changed: until Korea and Japan come to an understanding about the sovereignty of Dokdo (Tok-To)/Takeshima/Liancourt Rocks, Washington will acknowledge neither side's claims to the territory.
The writer has more than 45 years of experience in the field of marine geosciences. He presently operates his own consulting business, Five Oceans Consultants, providing services and expertise to public, private, non-profit and academic-sector organizations around the globe.