By Richard Krebill
A graduate student at Sejong University
Why do Koreans claim that Dokdo is “uri ddang (our land)”? I think it is important for the success of continued close relations between not only Korea and Japan but Korea and the rest of the world as well, that people everywhere have a better understanding of the contentious issues facing them and the Dokdo issue is certainly one of the most complicated and vexing faced by both Korea and Japan – a controversy which flared up in 1952 and continues to this day. But, before I go much further it is important to establish a baseline place name for “Dokdo.” Liancourt Rocks is an internationally accepted name for what has become known as Dokdo in Korea or Takeshima in Japan, according to various sources, are a group of roughly three dozen small islets and rock outcroppings in the East Sea (also known as the Sea of Japan which is another story). They are located at about 131°52´ East longitude and about 37°14´ North latitude. There are several other names which this collection of islets has had over the centuries but Dokdo is the one currently preferred and most widely used in Korea. Since I am writing this for The Hanyang Journal, I will use Dokdo throughout the remainder of this article rather than Liancourt Rocks unless a reference specifically uses one of the other names.
There are several challenges which complicate identifying similarities and differences in the Korean and Japanese positions related to Dokdo. One of them is the cultural differences between the two countries involved. Korea has traditionally had a Confucian-based culture and society which placed emphasis on scholarly pursuits with more of brains over brawn-type mindset while the Japanese on the other hand historically had more of a martial-based culture and society, at least until the end of the World War II, which caused them to operate somewhat differently. This difference in the basic framework of the two cultures causes the prism through which filial piety, respect for elders, and respect for the rights and claims on property of others to be refracted and consequently perceived differently by the cultures/societies of Korea and Japan. Also, the timeframe which the nadir - or acme depending on your viewpoint – of their international power and prestige is not synchronous which makes direct comparisons along an identical timeline impossible. The way in which the claims made today are viewed and of course the terminology used to describe them is different in both countries and this creates another challenge to identifying the similarities and differences of their respective claims to Dokdo.
Before we can identify any similarities and/or differences in those positions, we must familiarize ourselves with them. Following is a brief description of the Korean and Japanese cases and claims to Dokdo. Let’s begin by examining what is known of Dokdo’s history. The first mention of Dokdo in Korean history appears in 512 A.D., during the Three Kingdoms period, when a Shilla general received the surrender of the Usan-guk people who were living on Ullungdo at that time but we need to determine whether the Usan-guk surrender also covered Dokdo since when a terra firma, such as Ullungdo is claimed/occupied its adjacent islands are generally included in the claim. This is to say, as Shin, Yong-ha does in his book, Korea’s Territorial Rights to Dokdo; A Historical Study, “Dokdo and Ullungdo were the territories of Usan’guk which were annexed by Silla in 512 A.D. and have since been an inherent part of Korean territory.” (p. 30) But, because Dokdo is still an object of contention between Korea and Japan we need more proof than this and the somewhat obscure reference from the History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk sagi) about Shilla’s conquest of Usan-guk in 512. Another bit of proof which appears to bolster the Korean claim to Dokdo originated in Japanese documentary evidence from which an excerpt was translated and included in Shin, Yong-ha’s book, Korea’s Territorial Rights to Dokdo; A Historical Study, “From the mid-Koryo period on, records on Ullungdo began appearing in Japan. According to Gongki in the Documents on Great Japan’s History (Daihon shiryo), islanders from Ullungdo of Koryo had drifted to Japan in 1004, and the eleven repatriated to Korea included some from Silla’s Ullungdo. (p.40) This Japanese source document captures these events which occurred in 1004 and helps demonstrate that Japan knew the islanders from Ullungdo were Koryo people. There is no claim of Japanese sovereignty or ownership found in this document.
Early geographical surveys of Korea conducted during the Choson dynasty tend to further strengthen Korea’s claim on Dokdo. However, Japan has contested the accuracy of the early maps associated with these surveys as Dokdo, then called Usan-do, is depicted west of Ullungdo while it is actually east of the larger Ullungdo. But, as there are really only two islands near this area of the East Sea, the Koreans point out that the islands can only be Ullungdo and Dokdo regardless of their positions. Also Shin’s book, quoted above, points out that later maps such as the Map of Korea (Tongguk chido) and A Complete Map of Korea (Choson Chondo) are more accurate in positioning Usando southeast of Ullungdo and again confirm Dokdo as belonging to Korea. (p.59). More than these maps, the one which I feel best supports the Korean position was published by the Japanese Army General Staff in March 1936 (see illustration) which officially places Dokdo within the Korean region of the Japanese empire.
In a brochure published in July 2008 by the Korea Maritime Institute’s Korea Dokdo Research Center, titled “Dokdo is Korean Territory” four main points are highlighted; 1) Dokdo has continued to be an integral part of Korean territory is a fact well established in the historical records of not only Korea but Japan and other nations as well. 2) Dokdo is Korean territory under international law based on several documented occurrences one of which is Imperial Ordinance Number 41 issued in 1900 by the imperial government of Korea at that time. This ordinance placed Dokdo under the jurisdiction of the Ullungdo County Office. 3) Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the Japanese government officially recognized Korean sovereignty over Dokdo in a series of official documents issued by the Japanese government, including the “Takeshima Incident” dated 1696, “Chosenkoku Kosaishimatsu Naitansho” of 1870 and a document issued by the Japanese Council of State in 1877 which also officially recognized that Dokdo was not part of Japanese territory but rather belonged to Choson/Korea. 4) The fact that Dokdo is Korean sovereign territory has been established beyond any reasonable doubt. So, this means the questions over its legal status are not subject to international adjudication, arbitration or any other means of dispute settlement.
Additionally, in a separate brochure published in August 2008 by the Historical Association of Korea-Japan Relations, also titled “Dokdo is Korean Territory” similar points as those above are highlighted as well as a couple of others worth mentioning here; In January 1952, ROK President Syngman Rhee issued his declaration of maritime sovereignty which has also been referred to as the “Peace Line” is drawn includes Dokdo on the Korean side of the line. But, the Japanese claim this declaration is illegal and did not recognize it. During negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan, an informal agreement was made to settle the Dokdo issue in the International Court of Justice but Korea ended up sticking to its position that Dokdo was without a doubt Korean territory and refused to discuss the issue further at that time. Professor Jon M. Van Dyke of the law school of the University of Hawaii says that Korea has far greater historical evidence for the exercise of sovereignty Dokdo and this fact is further proven by Japanese historical documents from the 18th and 19th centuries. (pp. 13-15).
Today, Korea mans Dokdo with a small unit of uniformed security troops in addition to a Korean couple who lives on one of the islets while the Japanese continue to posture and make a fuss about their claim to Dokdo.
One might conclude that the Korean-Japanese contest over Dokdo is being played as if it were a hand of poker which neither side wants to “call”; a hand in which the Japanese are holding three Jokers at best, while the Korean side is holding four aces but not appearing to know the strength of their own hand nor what to make of the Japanese hand, are playing their hand as if it were merely two pair of aces. Korea could “call” the Japanese in the International Court of Justice and show the world their winning four of a kind hand and resolve the Dokdo question once and for all which is the way I felt until recently – take the Japanese to court and put an end to the dispute once and for all. However, after reading the brochure from the Korea Maritime Institute cited above and having a conversation with Mr. Hosaka Yuji, a member of the faculty at Sejong University as well as an expert on the Dokdo issue, I came to realize that the Korean government and people have such an unshakable belief in their claim that Dokdo is “uri ddang” they are not willing to dignify the notion that the Japanese claim is in any way valid by legally contesting their claim in an international court. After all, the old idiom “possession is nine-tenths of the law” still applies and Korea is, as I have tried to show above, rightfully and firmly in possession of Dokdo today. Amen.