Written by Robert E. Kelly.

Korea and Japan have been locked in an on-again/off-again dispute over two small volcanic rocks in the Sea of Japan since the 1950s. In Korea, these two rocks are known as ‘Dokdo’ (독도); in Japan, they are called ‘Takeshima’ (たけしま). In the West, they are called the ‘Liancourt Rocks,’ after a French ship that nearly foundered there. For those new to the dispute, the Wikipedia write-up is actually pretty good, and some of its links are helpful. The literature on this issue in Korea (which I know best) is immense. The Korean government even supports a ‘Dokdo Research Institute.’

I have no definitive comment on proper ownership. In my experience teaching in Asia as an American, there is little value to westerners making determinate judgments. Americans particularly are often seen as a referee in this conflict, as the US is an ally to both Japan and Korea. Hence I think it very unwise for Americans to definitively take a side. The US government position is that Japan and Korea need to work it on their own. I follow that line myself, as do most of the Americans and westerners I know in this area.

As best I can tell from the historical data – which are themselves hotly disputed, of course – the Korean claim is probably stronger, but there is likely no way to seriously establish that. The Koreans control the island and will certainly not surrender it, barring a Japanese use of force, which is unthinkable due to the mutual alliances with the United States. But Japan is unlikely to accept Korean control as legitimate without arbitration to which the Koreans will not agree. Hence the stalemate.

The historical problem is that sovereignty as we understand today, with strict, mutually exclusive zones, did not really exist in Asia until the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. There were borders, and Asia arguably had state-like bureaucracies before the West. But details like who exactly owned small, uninhabited rocks were simply not the focus of traditional Confucian governance and diplomacy. It is possible that some undisputed map from the 18th century or something will be unearthed that definitively settles the dispute, but I doubt it. In the end, even if Korea’s claim is stronger, the issue will not be resolved without some kind of agreement with Japan to legitimate it.

The Koreans do of course control the islets. To bolster its claim, the Korean government runs tours, stations police there, and routinely patrols the airspace. Seoul has also sought to change the international practice of using the term ‘Sea of Japan’ for the body of water between Korea and Japan to ‘East Sea.’ This is partly from Korea’s post-colonial, anti-Japanese nationalism, but it is also intended to bolster Seoul’s Dokdo claim by diluting the idea that the waters around Liancourt are ‘Japanese.’

Finally, it should be noted that the Japanese, for all the bluster coming from Seoul, have not actually pushed this issue much. The claim is formally maintained, and Shimane prefecture does celebrate ‘Takeshima Day’ on February 22. But there is little Japanese effort to change facts on the ground. Japanese fishing and naval vessels are not prodding the South Koreans. There is nothing like China’s behavior in the Paracels or Spratlys.

My own sense from Japanese colleagues is that Japan cares little for the issue. It makes for good politicking, and in the heated atmosphere of Japan-Korea relations today, it would be impossible for any Japanese politician to step back from the claim. But my own sense is that Japan holds to its Takeshima claim because it fears the ‘demonstration effect’ of flexibility on its other territorial disputes, with Russia and China, which are far more important. If Japan gives on Liancourt, Russia and especially China will push harder in their respective disputes. Given that an accidental Sino-Japanese clash over Senkaku is now a major regional worry, the Japanese will not budge on Liancourt.

The larger context on the Korean side of this flap is the intense Japanese focus of modern Korean nationalism. Japanese, Americans, and others have frequently noted the extremism of Korean rhetoric regarding Liancourt (here, here, here, here). One Korean president even ordered Korean ships to fire on Japanese ships near the islets; Seoul has also tried to include its Dokdo claim under the US-Korean defense treaty, which implies a possible American use of force against Japan. I have argued elsewhere (here, here, here) that much of this comes from the unique legitimacy challenge facing South Korea, as a half-country in contention with a mendacious, duplicitous national competitor.

Korean tension with Japan is obviously rooted in memory and territorial issues, but antipathy toward Japan also serves a national identity-building purpose in South Korea. The ROK (Republic of Korea) is trapped in a debilitating national legitimacy contest with the aggressively nationalist DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) which does not hesitate to play powerful nationalist cards against the South: South Korea is Hanguk, while North Korea is Joseon. South Korea is the bastardized, globalized, ‘Yankee Colony’ selling Korea’s heritage, folkways, and racial integrity to foreigners, while North Korea, despite its poverty, defends the minjok against its many predators, including Japan and the United States. To counter this narrative and the national confusion it generates, the ROK targets Japan instead the DRPK as the focal point of its state-building nationalism. If the ROK cannot be the anti-DPRK, then it will be the anti-Japan. And China, especially under Xi Jinping, clearly manipulates Korean disdain for Japan. But when Korea unites, the anti-Japan animus needed for the intra-Korean competition will be unnecessary. This is the long-term solution Korea-Japan tension.

Is there a Way Forward? There is no dearth of proposals on how to improve Japan-Korea relations. Resolution of the territorial issue would help, but I believe that it is more the outcome than the cause. That is, the intensity of the Dokdo dispute stems not from the value of Dokdo itself, but from its symbolism for Korean national identity. Because South Korea defines itself against Japan (rather than against the DPRK), Dokdo has taken on an importance all out of proportion to its material value.

Seoul often seeks to deflect this critique with arguments about local natural resources or the seabed, but these are fairly transparent dodges. It is not at all clear that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would allow control of Liancourt to project claims to the sea around it or to reset the overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Korea and Japan. Liancourt is not traditionally understood as ‘habitable;’ it cannot support indigenous human life. How to define that could of course be disputed, which Korea would likely do if it came so far. (Here is a good treatment of the UNCLOS tangle in the Asia-Pacific.)

If I am correct, the Liancourt/Dokdo/Takeshima fight will remain locked in place indefinitely. The only two events that would break the deadlock – a Japanese climb-down or a North Korean collapse – are unlikely in the medium-term. And Seoul will regularly deploy the Dokdo tussle in its geopolitical and historiographic contest with Tokyo. If there is one upside to this mess, at least Dokdo humor is pretty funny.

Robert E. Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University in South Korea. More of his work may be found at his website, Asian Security Blog. Image Credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons.