This is the fifth in a series of contributed articles by international and Korean experts shedding light on Japan’s claim on Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo and other affairs that prove Japan’s lack of remorse about historic misdeeds it has committed. _ E.D.
By Mark Lovmo
It seems like contentious territorial issues involving rocky islands in Northeast Asia have received yet more attention in the news recently, and might be with us for some time in the future. The particular contention over Dokdo could be never-ending, unless some very difficult work is done in the name of regional cooperation and interdependence.
I am of the view that Dokdo is Korean territory. I believe in the "twin island" concept (the twin islands being Ulleung Island and Dokdo), an idea that is not just rooted in geography, but in a shared conception that existed in the minds of the Koreans and the Japanese of the past.
Both nations considered Dokdo to be a sister island to Ulleung Island. Both the Koreans and Japanese believed this at least as early as the 19th century, and there is much anecdotal and documentary evidence to show that this was their shared perception at least until the 1930s.
Also, Dokdo is discernable from the Korean territory of Ulleung Island. This is the key to the twin island concept. I consider it baffling that Japan maintains this territorial dispute, not with an enemy state, but with an ally and economic partner of 48 years, over an island that is visible from their Korean neighbors’ sister island but cannot be seen at all from Japan.
Clearly the most important factor for me that makes Dokdo a Korean island is South Korea is currently in possession of the island, and has had undisputed, physical possession of it for 60 years (1952-present). In cases like this, possession is nine-tenths of the law, if not more.
So while historical claims (both Korean and Japanese) may be interesting, the reality is that they may not have much relevance to the situation on the ground. Any opinion passed down from outside the region by a ruling of the International Court of Justice or the International Court of Arbitration would have no coercive measures to ensure that the two nations would follow recommendations.
While little may actually change in this dispute, it is also important for us to understand its origins in order to appreciate the options currently available. Japan’s claim is mostly the result of a postwar settlement, especially in the particulars of the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty that officially ended fighting in the Pacific in World War II.
Provisions of the treaty gave the Japanese government some cause to believe that the treaty did not discard their unilateral incorporation of the island in 1905. This and other (rather weak) positive signals of outright American support for Japan’s position were reversed soon after the signing of the treaty, as the U.S. State Department began to perceive a dispute between Japan and Korea, upon which the Americans quickly feigned a neutral position on the Dokdo issue.
For the U.S. to wash its hands of Dokdo was significant, and not just for the Japanese claim: The Americans’ looming dominance over the arrangement of relations among the (noncommunist) countries of East Asia during the cold war meant that these governments mostly communicated with each other through the United States.
When the U.S. no longer entertained any Korean or Japanese claims to Dokdo’s sovereignty, any hope for serious and important discussions on this issue between the two governments came to a screeching halt, with only a very brief reprise in 1965.
However, the Americans did make a last, parting recommendation to the Japanese in November 1954, when William J. Sebald sagely advised a Japanese embassy minister that an announcement of “a note…or other periodic formal statements” to the Koreans would serve the purpose of keeping the Japanese claim alive.
Japan has been following Sebald’s advice ever since, and this remains the prominent method of communication between the two governments on the Dokdo issue.
This legacy of asymmetrical relations between Korea, Japan and the U.S. since the end of the Pacific War can help us understand, in part, why so few multilateral and coordinating institutions and structures exist between governments in East Asia, when compared to Europe.
Economic forces have greatly changed this paradigm in the years since, with some regional integration having taken place. However, contacts are largely economic and cultural, not through multilateral institutions.
Without a strong locus of such institutions in Northeast Asia, any meaningful discussion that will even approach an acceptable settlement of the dispute will probably not happen. The intractability of the Dokdo case shows us the very serious possibility that we may have to accept non-closure, if only for a lack of a better alternative.
Perhaps the two sides can agree that there will be no closure on Dokdo, but will instead agree to focus on cooperation in other areas of mutual interest. Otherwise, we can expect to be witness to more meaningless tit-for-tat dialogue in the form of “notes or other periodic formal statements” and further contention over Dokdo.
Mark Lovmo is an amateur historian and public school teacher in Egan, Minnesota. He was one of the first Westerners to study the historical background and origins of the Dokdo issue. He has discovered many confidential documents, including a 1952 U.S. diplomatic cable that reveals that the U.S. recognized Dokdo as a part of Korean territory.