[Bronze Prize Winners] First aggressive step toward colonization of Korea
By Kevin Conroy
Korean history shows that Dokdo is not an island, but a symbol of freedom, sovereignty, and independence. Arguably, Japan’s incorporation of Dokdo in 1905 was the first aggressive step toward the colonization of the Korean nation. S
oon after its seizure, Japan disbanded the Korean Armed Forces and denied Koreans their basic human rights, including the freedom of speech, press, and association. Within five years, the Japanese Empire had completely colonized the peninsula and enacted the Japan-Korean Annexation Treaty on Aug. 22, 1910.
Despite the belligerence that followed, Japan claims the seizure of Dokdo was legitimate. However, with an expanse of evidence to the contrary, are Japan’s claims accurate? Or, was the incorporation of the island an act of aggression?
In international relations, aggression is defined as an act or policy of expansion carried out by one state at the expense of another. It would seem obvious that Japan’s unilateral declaration to incorporate Dokdo as part of Okishima, Shimane Prefecture, on Jan. 28, 1905 was an act of aggression against Korea.
However, Japan claimed that since Dokdo was terra nullius ― land belonging to no one ― it was legitimate under international law to incorporate the territory into her Empire after receiving an application to lease the island from fisherman Nakai Yosaburo.
However, a review of historical evidence suggests Dokdo was not terra nullius and Nakai’s request to lease the island was not an underpinning reason for its annexation. Instead, Japan’s expansionist ambitions partly drove the decision to seize Dokdo.
Firstly, evidence shows the Japanese authorities misinformed Yosaburo about the status of Dokdo. In a written statement on March 26, 1906, Yosaburo confirmed that he intended to apply for a lease from the Korean government.
However, Yamaza Enjiro, the Director for Political Affairs, persuaded Yosaburo to apply for a lease via the Japanese Foreign Ministry, as the islands would be a great asset to the Navy. Moreover, Yosaburo’s application led to some confusion within various Japanese governmental departments.
The Japanese Navy claimed the islands belonged to no one, the Foreign Ministry considered them Japanese, while an interior ministry official believed Dokdo belonged to Korea, noting that annexing territory suspected of being sovereign Korean would damage Japan’s reputation. This clearly shows Yosaburo and the Japanese authorities suspected Dokdo was Korean territory and not truly terra nullius, but were willing to ignore this for their own advantage.
In the face of this evidence, Japan recently shifted her position and now argues the annexation of Dokdo was legitimate as she exercised historical sovereignty over the island prior to Korea. Japan states that when it granted permission to merchants to travel to Ulleungdo in 1618, Dokdo naturally became part of her territory.
To underscore sovereignty over Dokdo since at least the early Edo period (1603-1868), Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs cites documents such as the Complete Map of Japanese Land and Roads published in 1779, which contains both Ulleungdo and Dokdo.
However, the duplicity in Japan’s logic here is obvious. If Dokdo belonged to no one before 1905, then how could it possibly be historically Japan’s? Nevertheless, Korean research institutions, scholars and officials have produced a collection of historical evidence that proves Korean sovereignty prior to any Japanese claim.
For example, the Samguk Sagi published in 512, the Sejong Siliok Jiriji in 1454 and the Sinjeung Dongguk Yeoji Seungnam in 1531 are verified historic documents that demonstrate the Silla Dynasty assimilated the island in 512.
Moreover, numerous internationally-recognised maps and treaties from the 18th and 19th Century reaffirm this. On the other hand, Japan selectively ignores even its own historical records that buttress Korea’s position, most notably, the Dajokan Directive in which Japan’s Council of State acknowledged Korean rule over Dokdo in 1877.
Thus, Korea’s sovereignty over Dokdo dates back much further than Japan would care to admit. Consequently, if Dokdo lies historically with Korea and Japan’s incorporation in 1905 cannot be legitimate.
Finally, and most condemnatory, there is evidence that the incorporation of Dokdo was, in actuality, to aid in Japan’s war with Russia. The Defence Agency of Japan has a record of letters sent between high-ranking admirals and officials that highlight the Imperial Japanese Navy pinpointed Dokdo as being strategically important. For example, an order sent to Captain Sendo Takehide on Nov. 13, 1904, described Dokdo as a potential site on which to build a wired telegraphic transmission base.
Moreover, even before Japan’s declaration, the navy had surveyed the island twice; once on Sept. 24, 1904 and again on Nov. 20. Given the militarist nature of the Japanese Empire, it was highly likely the government would grasp any opportunity to increase the navy’s strategic position. The subsequent construction of a watchtower and the colonization of Korea soon after seizing Dokdo are too close to be a coincidence.
Taken together, the above arguments betray the reality that the seizure of Dokdo was not legitimate. Under the pretext of terra nullius, Japan’s Imperialist government exercised opportune aggression to incorporate Dokdo for their own strategic gain. Today, Japan still insists the repatriation of Dokdo to Korea in 1948 was illegal, and maintains only the International Court of Justice can settle the dispute.
This is unhelpful when prescient matters such as environmental disasters, a rising China and a nuclear-armed North Korea require a unified and cohesive partnership between the two states. Japan needs to acknowledge Korean sovereignty over Dokdo so the two nations can work together on these imperative issues.
The writer is a former senior analyst with SCLDefense. He is currently working for Janusian Terrorism-Tracker in Britain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.