Dokdo. Or should that be Takeshima? The islands located between South Korea and Japan in the East Sea. Or should that be the Sea of Japan?
The islands of Dokdo have once again found themselves at the centre of yet another political row between South Korea and Japan, the two countries that both claim them as their own.
The visit of the South Korean president, Lee Myung Bak, last weekend to the disputed islets has reignited the age old debate of who they actually belong to. The visit has shocked the Japanese government, who in response recalled their ambassador to South Korea, and summoned the South Korean ambassador to Japan for an explanation. Having made great efforts to improve bilateral relations during his time in office, this does seem rather a strange move from Lee Myung Bak. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a last ditch attempt to give his lagging popularity a boost in the run up to a presidential election in December. But perhaps there’s more to it than that.
The already strained relations between the two countries took another battering after South Korea not only beat Japan in the Olympic bronze medal match on Friday, but then one of the players, Park Jong Woo, waved a sign reading ‘Dokdo is our land’.
Park Jong Woo holding ‘Dokdo is our land’ signg
To an outsider the obvious question is ‘why?‘. Why create so much tension over an uninhabitable, isolated cluster of rocks in the middle of nowhere? But to both the Koreans and Japanese this is about so much more than that. National pride is at stake.
The islands are located in the East Sea, or the Sea of the Japan, depending on which side of it you live. They are roughly 215km from mainland Korea and 250km from mainland Japan, and the nearest landmass is the Korean-owned island of Ulleungdo which is about 85km away. Both sides insist that the islands are surrounded by valuable fishing grounds and apparently sit on potentially huge natural gas reserves, but there is no solid evidence for this.
There are two permanent residents on Dokdo, a Korean fisherman and his wife. Korean police and coastguards are also stationed there. Tens of thousands of Koreans visit Dokdo every year, despite the lack of a cafe, souvenir shop or even a public toilet. Tours run from the mainland to the islands, although the waves are so bad that only two thirds of the boats can land.
Both claims go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and are extremely long, confusing and take a lot of untangling. For Koreans the current argument centres around the lingering resentment towards the Japanese colonisation in the mid 1900’s and their refusal to give the islands back. The Japanese argue that the islands were never included in the treaty with the Allied Forces to leave Korean territory and began to claim legal right over them again in the 1950’s. Japanese textbooks even teach children that the Koreans ‘stole’ the islands and now won’t return them.
Despite the public’s general indifference towards the situation, the Japanese government created Takeshima Day, an annual taunt of their claim over the islands. Korea inevitably reacted with demonstrations and protests. In a more extreme show of patriotism a mother and son cut off their own fingers and one man even set himself alight. Subway stations have huge model Dokdos, museums sell all manner of Dokdo merchandise and even our local fried chicken outlet plasters its take away boxes with pro-Dokdo slogans.
In the 50’s, 60’s and again this week, the Japanese have pushed Korea to take this issue before the International Court of Justice as a disputed territory, but Korea has consistently refused, simply stating that Dokdo isn’t disputed; it’s Korean.
Many believe that if Japan walked away from the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute it would undermine its claims over other disputed Asian islands, like the Kuril islands also claimed by Russia and Senkaku islands claimed by Japan, Taiwan and China. It is extremely unlikely that this will end in any kind of military action, so the two countries have now reached a sort of stalemate. Where does it go from here? Will they take the debate to the ICJ for a final international ruling? Or will Koreans continue to rip heads off pheasants, maim themselves and set themselves alight while the Japanese continue with their vague indifference towards the situation?