How Korea makes a case for Dokdo

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How Korea makes a case for Dokdo


An aerial photo of Dokdo islets. Dong Island (East Island) is on the right. [YONHAP]

The long-standing territorial dispute between Korea and Japan over the Dokdo islets has reached a boiling point after President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented visit to the two rocky islets located 87.4 kilometers (54 miles) southeast of Ulleung Island last Friday. 

A week has passed since the diplomatic bickering began, and the focus is now on what factual evidence Korea has to support its claim over Dokdo should the dispute be taken before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). 

In the wake of President Lee’s visit, Japan said it was considering taking the issue to the ICJ, but Korea said it will not accept the Japanese move because Dokdo “is already an integral part of Korean territory historically, geographically and under international law.” The Korean government has repeatedly said “there is no reason why Korea should turn to a court.”

If Korea does not agree to stand before court, the issue will not be taken to the ICJ because a territorial dispute can be brought only if both countries involved in the dispute agree to it.

Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s position is that: “No territorial dispute exists regarding Dokdo, and Dokdo is not a matter to be dealt with through diplomatic negotiations or judicial settlement.”

Japan, however, has laid claim to Dokdo in school textbooks and government reports, with the latest coming last month in its annual report titled “Defense White Paper.”

Amid Japan’s claims, what grounds are there, then, for Korea to assert with confidence that Dokdo belongs to its territory historically, geographically and under international law?

According to Korea’s Dokdo Research Institute, a key event in the history of Dokdo dates back to the early 1900s during the Russo-Japanese War.

At that time, the Japanese military was aware of the strategic value of Dokdo when the Russian and Japanese fleets collided, and in 1905, the Japanese foreign affairs minister sent an official letter to Japan’s prime minister and requested approval of ownership of Dokdo, referring to it as “terra nullius,” a Latin expression translated as “empty land.” The term is used in international law when describing land with no sovereignty. 

After a month or so on Feb. 22, the governor of Japan’s Shimane Prefecture officially claimed Dokdo as its own territory, which Japan has long argued as important evidence in challenging Korea’s sovereignty over Dokdo. The incorporation was made official by Japan by issuing the Shimane Prefecture Public Notice No. 40.

Based on what Japan asserts as lawful incorporation, in 2005, the Shimane Prefecture designated Feb. 22 as Takeshima Day. Takeshima is the name Japan has given Dokdo. 

Korea’s Foreign Ministry refutes Japan’s claim that it incorporated Dokdo based on the fact that it was land without sovereignty with the argument that Dokdo was not a no-man’s land at the time in 1905 but was in fact Joseon territory.

According to Korea’s foreign ministry, the Daijoukan, translated as the Grand Council of State, which was Japan’s highest decision making body during the Meiji period (1868-1912), issued a directive in 1877, stating that “It was confirmed through negotiations between the old government [Edo shogunate] and the Joseon government that the two islands [Dokdo and Ulleung Island] do not belong to our country [Japan].”

The directive in the Daijoukan Order also states: “Regarding Takeshima [back then referring to Ulleung Island] and another island [Dokdo] .?.?. bear in mind that our country [Japan] has nothing to do with them.”

Several years before the order was addressed, in 1870, historical documents show that Japan’s foreign ministry at the time also regarded the two islands as Joseon territory, according to Korea’s Foreign Ministry.

“There is also the mention of ‘how Takeshima [Ulleung Island] and Matsushima [Dokdo] have come under Joseon’s jurisdiction in the Report on Past Interactions with Joseon [by Japan],” Seoul’s ministry points out on its Web site on Dokdo.

In addition to the official Japanese government documents that consistently acknowledge Dokdo as non-Japanese territory, Korea’s historical books published during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) also show its ancient governments had control over Dokdo. 

According to Seoul’s Northeast Asian History Foundation, for example, in Sejong Sillok Jiriji, roughly translated as the Geography of the Annals of King Sejong’s Reign in 1454, it is recorded that Ulleung Island and Dokdo are “two islands that are part of Joseon’s Uljin prefecture.”

Old maps from other countries also portray Dokdo as part of Joseon’s territory, backing up Korea’s understanding of Dokdo.

The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs put together an exhibition in May at the National Geographic Information Institute in Suwon, Gyeonggi, and displayed dozens of original pieces of old maps from countries like Japan, the United Kingdom and France, with Dokdo marked as part of Joseon.

There are other viewpoints made by Korean experts that argue there is inconsistency in Tokyo’s position on claiming Dokdo as “empty land.”

“In January 1905, Japan incorporated Dokdo into its territory, saying that there is no evidence that the empty land is under the possession of any foreign country,” said Doh See-hwan, a research fellow at the Northeast Asian History Foundation. 

“But the Japanese government modified its original position in the 1950s after recognizing it has contradicted itself over territorial claims to Dokdo before 1905.”

After Korea’s independence from Japanese colonization and setting up of a new government, in 1952, Korea proclaimed Dokdo as Korean territory in the “Presidential Declaration on Sovereignty over the Adjacent Seas.” 

The Japanese government protested the declaration, saying that Korea is assuming territorial rights over the islets in the “Sea of Japan,” which Korea calls the “East Sea.”

Supporting its territorial claim to Dokdo, Japan points to the San Francisco Peace Treaty signed on Sept. 8, 1951 between Japan and 48 nations to discuss postwar measures, which officially ended World War II and Japan’s imperialism. It says there was no direct mentioning of Japan giving up the Dokdo islets. 

Article 2 of the treaty says: “Japan recognizing the independence of Korea, renounces all right, title and claim to Korea, including the islands of Quelpart, Port Hamilton and Dagelet.” Quelpart refers to Jeju Island, Port Hamilton to Geomun Island and Dagelet to Ulleung Island.

Japan’s foreign ministry states that “In the drafting process of the Treaty of Peace with Japan, the United States rejected the Korea’s request to include Takeshima in the relevant articles of the Treaty, as one of the areas Japan would renounce, claiming that Takeshima was under the jurisdiction of Japan.”

In response to Japan’s claims, Korea’s Foreign Ministry argues that by Japan’s interpretation, only three Korean islands should have been returned to Korea instead of more than 3,000 islands that are currently part of Korean territory.

“Dokdo was rightly included as an area Japan should relinquish because it was Korea’s territory, which Japan usurped through violence and for greed during the Russo-Japanese War, which heralded the start of Japan’s full-scale land-grabbing war,” Seoul’s Foreign Ministry states.

Korean experts strongly criticize Japan for not mentioning the internal report issued by the U.S. State Department in 1954, which states that the action of signing the San Francisco Treaty should not be construed as if Japan has sovereignty over the Dokdo islets.

“In order for Korea and Japan to not repeat their unfortunate past and to set a foundation in creating prosperity in the Northeast Asian region, Japan should stop claiming its territorial rights over Dokdo,” said Doh of the Northeast Asian History Foundation.

Doh and other Korean scholars argue that although Japan has expressed regret over its annexation of Korea but still thinks of the colonization as legitimate, a recent study showed that the 1910 Korea-Japan annexation treaty itself was invalid under international law because Korea’s proclamation of the treaty lacked Joseon’s approval.

“Historical documents show that the annexation treaty was void,” said Yi Tae-jin, professor emeritus at Seoul National University. “The original copy of the Korean proclamation only had King Sunjong’s private seal, which was normally used for only administrative approval, and no state seal or official signature.”

Based on Korean scholars’ findings that argue Japan’s annexation of Korea was illegitimate, in 2010, more than 100 Japanese intellectuals including Professor Emeritus Wada Haruki from the University of Tokyo took part in declaring a joint statement that the Japan’s annexation of Korea was invalid while commemorating the centennial year of the treaty.

In modern times, Korea has effectively controlled the islets. It has a police presence on Dokdo and to preserve its natural environment and ecosystem, the Korean government has designated the islets as the country’s Natural Monument No. 336 in 1982 and as Environmentally Protected Area in 1999. Dokdo also received its first resident in 1965, now deceased. At present, a Korean couple lives on the island all year around.

By Lee Eun-joo  []

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