By Tong Kim
``Accurate history should be based on facts (and) evidence as to what really happened … Whether the past was pleasant or tragic, history must be understood for what it is. And (shared) truth will contribute to building trust and peace between nations."
These are the words of Kim Yong-deok, president of the Northeast Asian History Foundation, who spoke at a recent conference on the issue of the island of Dokdo. The conference was held at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.
Dokdo, consisting of two rocky islets, has been called several different names in the past, but today the island is called Dokdo by Koreans and Takeshima by the Japanese. The standard name by the U.S. Board on Geographical Names (BGN) is Liancourt under the country category of South Korea and Take-shima under that of Japan. However, the BGN makes it clear that its geographical names do not necessarily reflect ``the U.S. view of the sovereignty over geographical features."
These names reflect differences among Korea, Japan and the United States regarding the question of sovereignty. The names embody a saga of disputes between the two neighboring adversaries, with the United States taking an evasive neutral position, which still is the case today. Both Korea and Japan lay territorial claims on Dokdo on the basis of their respective interpretation of historic documents and geographical relations with the island.
The focus on the Dokdo debate can be divided into two periods: the period preceding the ``incorporation" of Dokdo by Japan, which considered it as a terra nullius in 1905, and the postwar period of U.S. occupation of Japan until the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952, which chose to exclude any mention of Dokdo.
For the period before 1905, the evidence from documents and maps published both in Korea and Japan heavily weighs in favor of Korea's claim that it had long regarded the islets as its territory. The Koreans find a strong piece of evidence to support their claim in the Japanese government documents of 1877 - by the Ministry of Interior and the Supreme Council of State ― which declared that Dokdo and Ulleungdo were ``unrelated to Japan." As documented, Japanese citizens had visited Ulleungdo but not Dokdo. Ulleungdo had been taken over by the Shilla Dynasty in the 6th century.
Japan's incorporation of 1905 was the beginning of Japan's unilateral encroachment of Korean territory. In that year the secret Taft-Katsura agreement was signed. By the agreement, the United States gave Japan control of Korea in exchange of Japan's recognition of U.S. interests in the Philippines, as both were following in the footsteps of imperialist competition.
Korea was weak and defenseless against Japan's imperialist ambition of territorial expansion. In 1905, Korea was forced into a Japanese ``protectorate" and consequently a Japanese colony in 1910. If Japan had established its sovereignty long before 1905, as it argues, why was it necessary to incorporate the island that was already its own land?
In 1900, the Korean government had issued an ordinance that had put Dokdo under the jurisdiction of the Ulleungdo County, from which Dokdo is visible on a clear day. But then Korea would soon lose its independence. Dokdo was taken by Japan's ``greed" as the maxim goes, ``The strong eats the weak."
There is ample evidence in U.S. documents and academic literature showing that after the end of the Pacific War, the United States vacillated in determining the sovereignty of Dokdo between the positions of Korea and Japan, both of whom would serve U.S. strategic interest at the burgeoning period of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Initial drafts of the peace treaty with Japan treated Liancourt as Korean territory until the Japanese foreign ministry claimed its possession of the island partially on the ground that the Korean name of Dokdo was not found on the maps made in Korea. The Potsdam Declaration limited Japan's territory to four main islands, pending the rights over ``such minor islands as we determine." Without consulting Korea and without an effort to search historic evidence, the United States changed its position on the disputed island in the final version of the treaty.
It was a departure from the Potsdam Declaration that should expel Japan from all territories which she took by ``violence and greed," and the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers' Instructions No. 677 and No. 1033 that excluded Dokdo from Japan's administrative authority and prohibited Japanese nationals from approaching within 10 miles of Dokdo. The peace treaty excluded any mention of Dokdo, causing it to be a continuing dispute between Korea and Japan.
The division of Korea was an unintentional historic accident that took place at the military expediency of the United Sates to receive the surrender of the Imperial Japanese Army in Korea. But the U.S. inaction that avoided effectuating Japan's renunciation of its claim on Dokdo was intentional. At one time the Americans used Dokdo as a bombing range.
There have been some minor clashes and close calls over Dokdo in recent years. Japan has proposed to take the issue to the International Court of Justice whose arbitration would have no binding effect, and Korea has rejected it. Korea today has established ``effective occupation" of the Dokdo islets on which Korea built a lighthouse, a helipad, small port facilities and barracks for maritime police guards armed with small arms and mortars. Also, two fishermen are known to live on the island, which became a tourist attraction to South Koreans.
Some argue that the dispute should be referred to a multilateral forum for arbitration. Some even suggest that the dispute should be resolved as part of a package solution of other territorial disputes involving China, Japan and Russia. But that would be impractical in several aspects not to mention the question of determining participants in such a forum. Given the history of Japan's colonial rule, the Korean people have a strong feeling about the island and they are determined to protect it from the Japanese claim.
The Dokdo issue has become a rallying point for all Koreans of the North and the South, and no Korean government, incumbent or future, can afford to risk unpredictable arbitration by a third party or a group of third parties.
Koreans are comfortable with the historic evidence that supports their sovereignty over Dokdo. They want to move on from the unfortunate past toward peace and friendship with Japan, by sharing the truth of history and the applicability of international law regarding the sovereignty of Dokdo.
What's your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.