History Backs Koreas Dokdo Sovereignty
By Michael Ha
A leading scholar and president of a major research foundation said history firmly backs up Korea's sovereignty over Dokdo and that Korea should offer grants to prominent academics around the world to conduct independent research.
``We've got history on our side. We are confident of it," said Kim Yongdeok, president of the Northeast Asian History Foundation in Seoul.
``We have to represent Korea's view logically and rationally, using historical facts. Remember, history is on our side. We have to be smart about this. We should offer research grants and invite prominent scholars and academics overseas to independently study this issue. Let them decide for themselves who's right."
In an interview with The Korea Times, Kim shared his view as a historian on how
Japan's claim on Dokdo represents a distortion of the past history.
He pointed to a number of major historical documents that show Dokdo as part of Korea, including the 1877 Dajokan edict and the announcement in 1900 by Emperor Gojong of the Korean Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), as well as the directive signed by General Douglas Macarthur shortly after Japan's surrender in 1945.
1877 Dajokan Decree: Japan Knew Dokdo Belongs to Korea
Kim said that in particular, the 1877 document from Japan's central Dajokan council proves conclusively that Japan itself acknowledged Korea's ownership of Dokdo.
``This official decree came from Dajokan, Japan's Great Council of State. Until Japan adopted a cabinet system, this Dajokan council was the central governing body," he said.
``This council issued an official edict in 1877 which stated that Ulleung-do and `the other island next to Ulleung-do' are not related to Japan and that Japanese are to stay away from them. The council instructed all Japanese subjects to remember this decree," he said.
Kim said this ruling was authoritative. ``It represented a final ruling and an assessment of Dokdo's history by Japan's central authority. It demonstrated how Japan had historically viewed Dokdo. To compare it to today's political system, it would be like the Japanese government implementing a law after getting it ratified in the national parliament."
But now, he noted, there are some Japanese scholars who make ``a far-fetched, implausible argument" about it.
``They say the Dajokan central council didn't know how to read maps. They say that central council members misread and misinterpreted their own maps when making this decision."
He said it's really difficult to take this argument at face value and to believe that the most powerful politicians in Japan at the time didn't know how to read their own maps. ``It's preposterous."
``And further, if the central council made a mistake reading maps, someone sooner or later would have pointed out the error and the council would have had no choice but to make a change."
But there was no change, no amendments, he noted. ``And it represented Japan's official policy on Dokdo. And this is from fairly recent history, relatively speaking."
He also spoke about major government documents from Korea's Joseon Kingdom that show Dokdo as part of Korea.
``In the year 1900, Emperor Gojong gave the presiding official in the Uljin country, Gangwon Province, administrative jurisdiction over Ulleung-do and Dokdo. Past documents show that Korea's central governments had territorial and administrative control over Dokdo."
Japan's 1905 Notice: Based on False Premise
Kim said that Tokyo officials often point to the 1905 Notice from Japan's Shimane Prefecture, which unilaterally incorporated Dokdo as Japanese territory without counseling the Korean government.
But that Notice, he said, ``first of all, was not issued from Japan's central governing body and it's based on a false premise.
``That Shimane Notice was issued using a premise that Dokdo was land without an owner; that is, there were no inhabitants and that no sovereign state had claimed it," he said.
``But that premise is groundless. As I said before, Japanese authorities already ruled on Dokdo's sovereignty issue in 1877. And Joseon had officials with administrative duties over Ulleung-do and Dokdo.
``That means the Shimane Notice makes no sense. According to the Notice, Japan was incorporating Dokdo because no state had claimed it before. That just makes no sense!"
He added: ``Some Japanese officials now say Dokdo has been Japan's indigenous territory historically. That's nonsense. If Dokdo was part of Japan historically, Japan wouldn't have issued that Shimane Notice in 1905 and use the premise that no nation had claimed the islets before. Japan's military had an eye on Dokdo for military purposes, during the Russo-Japanese War."
Allied Powers Stated Dokdo Is Part of Korea
Kim said Dokdo is a symbol of Japan's imperialistic aggression from the 20th century. ``Japan's move to incorporate Dokdo in 1905 was the first step in Japan's imperialistic aggression. When Korea regained independence in 1945, naturally Dokdo was returned to Korea. But these historical facts are largely unknown in other countries including the United States."
``And after 1945, the supreme commander of the allied powers discussed Korean territorial issues. And the allied powers mentioned Dokdo as part of Korea," he noted. General Douglas Macarthur, the supreme commander of the allies in the Pacific and the ruler of Japan during its U.S. occupation after World War II, signed a directive shortly after Japan's surrender in 1945, which stated that Dokdo is part of Korea.
He said that the decision was also passed onto John Hodge, the military administrator and commander of U.S. forces in Korea between 1945 and 1948.
Treaty of San Francisco
Another document Japanese officials talk about when making their claim over Dokdo is the Treaty of San Francisco. The document mentions a number of big islands as Korean but does not specifically refer to Dokdo in any context.
``It's interesting to note that during the final negotiation of the treaty in 1951, the Dokdo reference was taken out. What's mysterious is the fact that Dokdo was mentioned and included in the first five drafts."
This treaty, signed between the allied powers and Japan, dismantled Japan's position as an imperial power. Among its agreements is the official renunciation of Japan's former territorial claims in Asia.
``These first drafts specifically mention Jeju-do, Geomun-do, Ulleung-do and also Dokdo as Korean islands. But in the last draft, a reference to Dokdo disappeared."
He said it would be intriguing to do more research into this and find out what caused this change. ``There have been suggestions, though not proven, that said there was a particularly influential foreign consultant and lobbyist who worked on behalf of Japan. There have been many suggestions that said the omission of Dokdo in the final draft was a result of lobbying."
He noted that considering what was happening in Korea at that time, ``you can understand why Korea didn't have the wherewithal to raise much objection. We were fighting in the Korean War when that treaty was negotiated. Koreans just couldn't pay any attention to what was going on there. But of course, there was a lot of interest from Tokyo."
He pointed out that the treaty didn't say Dokdo was part of Japan either. ``Now, Japanese officials point to the wording in that treaty and say, `Look, there is no mention of Dokdo as Korean territory. And our 1905 Shimane notice shows that Dokdo is part of Japan.'"
Kim said: ``I am a historian and I am looking at this from an even-keeled, rational perspective using historical facts. And what I can say is, what Japan is claiming is far-fetched.
``Looking at it overall, Dokdo represents Japan's first imperialistic step. So Dokdo was naturally returned to Korea following Korea's independence in 1945."
He said Washington needs to acknowledge this as well. ``Washington says this is a bilateral issue between Korea and Japan. But the United States helped lead the way in correcting past imperialistic aggressions of the 20th century."
When asked what is motivating Japan to make this territorial claim, he said: ``Japan may be hoping to expand by claiming various islands and territorial waters as well as underwater resources.
``Far-right groups in Japan are basically claiming that any lands that were ever related to Japan's history should belong to Japan. Japan is also claiming sovereignty over South Kuril Islands, even though the San Francisco treaty spelled out that those islands are part of Russia.
``From a historical perspective, Japan's claim is weak. Also psychologically, when Japan makes these claims, there may be, shall we say, an element of a desire to relive Japan's glorious imperialistic past."
Keeping Eye on Japan's Political Landscape
Kim also noted that Korea ``will have to watch how the Japanese political landscape shifts in the future. If the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s hold on power is weakened, the Japanese government's persistent claim on Dokdo might lose steam.
``To be sure, Tokyo won't completely give up its claim over Dokdo. But at least, Japan's effort to internationalize this issue, its effort to assert Japan's view around the world and trigger conflicts with neighboring countries might slow down."
He noted that Ichiro Ozawa, president of Japan's main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is considered the strongest contender to become Japan's next prime minister. He added that this politician takes a somewhat more cautious approach.
``When he heard about Tokyo's decision on middle school manuals to include a claim over Dokdo, he criticized the way Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda handled it. He asked `Why did the Japanese government act so unilaterally in reaching that decision? Shouldn't the Japanese government engage in more dialogue with Korea?'
``To be clear, though, Ozawa wasn't objecting to the territorial claim per se, but just the procedural part of it."
He said that while the Japanese government is obviously not expecting Korea to hand over Dokdo, Tokyo might be expecting ``subtle changes in Korean public opinions on how to react to Japan's claim."
Some may begin to say that maybe it's not such a bad idea to take this issue to the International Court of Justice. Maybe the public opinion might move toward that direction, he said.
``Tokyo could also continue to exert influence in the international community to bring other nations to agree with Japan's view. If other major nations begin to take Japan's claims seriously, that could put a lot of pressure on Korea.
``In Russia's case, Moscow actually said it's willing to take the Kuril Islands issue to the International Court of Justice. But Japan is refusing Russia's offer in that particular case."
He also commented on Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo's much-publicized visit to Dokdo Tuesday. He argued that ``We shouldn't just guard Dokdo with police. We should start a civil administrative office there."
He noted: ``Yes, there is just one Korean household living there. But more than 400 Koreans visit the islets everyday. So we should have an office there to handle administrative functions. Also, Dokdo is a designated natural property. The government may want to look into building marine research facilities there. Scientists have even proposed building an underwater research center. Dokdo is Korea's pearl. It's a beautiful place."
Let's Help International Scholars Research This Issue
Kim said the most effective way to publicize Korea's view may be to offer research grants and invite prominent scholars and academics overseas to independently study the issue.
``We should let them decide for themselves who's right," he said.
``When the United Nations is examining an international issue, an academic paper published by, say, Harvard Law School, gets cited and referenced. We have the history on our side. We are confident of it. We are not talking about hiring lobbyists.
``We would simply ask prominent academics overseas to look at historical facts and ask them to reach independent conclusions in their academic papers."
Looking at German-Polish Example
Will Japan one day cooperate in jointly writing history textbooks with Korea? He said some academics point to the German-Polish model and how those two nations are working together in writing Germany's brutal 20th-century history for their children.
``And they say that could serve as a model for Korea-Japan relations as well. That would be an ideal model. But it would be difficult," he said.
``After the end of the Second World War, Germany took bold steps to repent for its past sins and start anew as a peaceful nation. The country gradually gave up more than a quarter of the territories that it previously controlled before the start of the Second World War," he said.
``Japan may not be there yet in terms of repenting for its past. When you watch Japan make these territorial claims, you just have to wonder.
``Germany and Poland worked together to jointly write history textbooks for their schools. Their example shows, though, that this is far from easy, and it takes a long time before such efforts reach fruition. Their effort started in the 1970s and new joint textbooks are taking 30-some years to complete. Korea and Japan have not started such a project to jointly write textbooks."
He noted that in 2006 his foundation held a conference and invited the German and Polish academics who were working together to write new history textbooks. ``We asked Polish academics how they were able to work hand-in-hand with Germans. Well, they said that's not exactly the case. Polish scholars said they still have a lot of complaints. So you see, this is not an easy process for anyone."
North Korea Could Lend a Hand
Kim noted that bilateral cooperation between South and North Korea would also come in handy.
With North Korea, it would be nice to have more of their cooperation on these issues, not just regarding Dokdo but also about territorial histories involving all Korean history, he said.
``But as you well know, with North Korea relations, we have our ups and downs. But the interesting thing is that South and North Korea are on the exact same page when it comes to Dokdo. When it comes to refuting Japan's claims, North Korean scholars are also very diligent."
He noted that his foundation also researches histories of Korea and China and that it would be great to get help from North Korean scholars on this issue, including the history of Manchuria and Mount Baekdu. ``But on those fronts, North Koreans are slow to accept help from us."
He said the Korean government and the Korean people have to ``respond decisively and rationally."
``When I say decisively, I mean keeping our eye on this on a long-term basis, and not losing interest in it. And when I say we have to be rational, I mean we have to represent our view rationally, using historical facts.
``We also need to continue to network with other governments and government officials. Remember, history is on our side. We have to be smart about this."
Kim, 63, president of the Northeast Asian History Foundation, brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the foundation launched in 2006.
Previously, Kim served as the dean at the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University (SNU). He was also director at the Institute for Japanese Studies at the university.
He received his Ph.D in history from Harvard University, where he also served as a researcher.
Kim is also a member of the Chin-tan Society and the Korean National Committee of Historical Sciences, International Committee of Historical Sciences, as well as the National Institute of Korean History.
A major research and educational organization in Seoul, the foundation has embarked on several research and education initiatives. It aims to research Northeast Asian history, including the history of Korea-Japan relations. One of its goals is to fully examine various disputed issues in East Asian history.
On the educational front, the foundation is providing support and cooperation to promote academic exchanges between scholars from Korea, China and Japan. The foundation is also involved in translating and distributing historical documents on Korea's history, territorial land and sea.
"Most of today's conflicts in Northeast Asia are rooted in the past," Kim said. "Contested narratives of collective memory and mutually divergent interpretations of the past in Korea, China and Japan have generated political tension and inflamed popular emotion in the region."
The distortion of history is a matter of grave concern for the entire Northeast Asian region, he noted. ``The foundation reflects and embodies the common aspiration of the Korean people to devise a rational and logical approach for resolving the issues surrounding the distortion of history."