On the legitimacy of Dokdo

By Daniele Pestilli on May 26, 2011
Image by Rachouette (CC)

Was Japan’s incorporation of Dokdo to Shimane Prefecture in 1905 legitimate or an act of aggression?

Dokdo is an island comprised of two islets, Dongdo (East islet) and Seodo (West islet). This small plot of land is located in the East Sea and is almost equidistant from Japan and Korea. Several other names have been ascribed to Dokdo as foreign countries encountered these rocks: in 1849, the French whaling ship Liancourt named it the Liancourt Rocks, as it came to be known in Europe thereafter. In 1855, the British warship Hornet also came across Dokdo and named it Hornet Rocks. However, the first record of Dokdo was made in an important Korean document, the Sejong sillok jiriji (Annals of King Sejong, 1454), approximately 200 years before it was officially acknowledged in Japanese texts. The Japanese document that mentions Dokdo for the first time is the 1667 text, Inshu shicho goki (Records on Observations in Oki Province), by Saito Toyonobu, a samurai of Izumo.

In these texts, the island was often referred to by different names. Confusion of nomenclature has been a primary cause of misunderstandings as to whether Dokdo was effectively a terra nullius (i.e. no-man's land) and consequently, apt for legitimate territorial acquisition. Contrary to what one may think, the possession of this territory was not always so vehemently sought after: both Korea and Japan banned their citizens from sailing to the islands for large portions of history. For about 470 years the Joseon government, Korea’s ruling dynasty from 1392 to 1897, virtually abandoned the islands, prohibiting its people from traveling to the nearby island of Ulleungdo, which was known in Japanese as Takeshima (Dokdo). This was a countermeasure to the frequent marauding by Wakō, or Japanese pirates. Korea did not lift this ban until 1882. Similarly, in 1696 the Japanese government issued an order banning its citizens from going to Takeshima, and in 1877 the Dajōkan, the highest government organ in Japan at that time, formally declared that the island bore no connection to Japan.

Regardless of these injunctions, one fact cannot be overlooked. In 1900 the Korean government promulgated Imperial Ordinance N. 41, officially stating that it exercised complete sovereignty over Dokdo. Japan raised no objection to this. Nevertheless, as Japan’s foreign policy became more aggressive during the years leading up to the Russo-Japanese War, this attitude radically changed. By leveraging the confusing nomenclature and fabricating claims that the island was effectively a terra nullius, Korea’s claim to sovereignty was breached as what can be viewed as an undeniable act of aggression. As scholar Naitō Seichū explained, it was one of Japan’s first steps towards the colonization of Korea.

Immediately preceding the Russo-Japanese War, Japan had abusively set up a post-office on Ulleungdo and subsequently, during the war, they built watchtowers and undersea telegraph cables in preparation for the inevitable clash with the Russian Vladivostok fleet. It is no surprise that Ulleungdo and Dokdo became highly valued for military and strategic reasons during this epoch. Japan declared war on Russia in 1904, and soon after, concluded the Japan-Korea Treaty. Although this protocol guaranteed “the independence and territorial integrity” of Korea, this was hardly the case as, by that time, Seoul had already been brought under military control and the Korean administration was taken over by Japan. In 1905, Japan proclaimed Korea its protectorate, formally annexing it in 1910 and ruling it until the end of the Second World War. On February 22, 1905, Shimane Prefecture announced Public Notice No. 40, naming Liancourt Island, Takeshima, and placing it under Japanese jurisdiction. Since Korea was a colony of Japan, the former had no say in the matter. In fact, Korea learned of the incorporation in March 1906, one year after the measure was taken, when county master Shim Heung-taek was notified of the event and immediately reported it to the central government.

As the Cold War ignited and intensified in the Far East, the right to territorial sovereignty over Dokdo became even more complex: Japan was a far more important ally to the United States than Korea for confronting the Soviet Union.

During the 1946 Tokyo Trials, “no Korean served as judge or prosecutor, although hundreds of thousands of colonized Korean men and women had been brutalized by the Japanese war machine” according to American historian John W. Dower. It was fundamentally a “white man's tribunal” where the US was free to express its interests in the region. In 1952, Takeshima was classified as Japanese territory by leading world powers in the Treaty of San Francisco. The Soviet Union vehemently opposed the treaty, and some of its motives were extremely logical. For instance, they argued that neither China nor Taiwan were invited to participate in the treaty despite being two of the main victims of the Japanese aggression (see Rape of Nanking). Also, the Soviet Union opposed the fact that the treaty set up Japan as an American military base. What's more, they contested the fact that islands such as Dokdo were being ceded by the treaty to the United States (although they would officially remain ”Japanese“ on paper) despite the US not having any legitimate claim to them. And it turned out that the Soviet Union was absolutely right: according to an official document by the Japanese Embassy to Italy, Dokdo was used by the US army for military drills and explosive tests in 1952. The island was a convenient place for the US to set itself up strategically against the Eastern Bloc.

Essentially, we should not blindly assume that the bilateral treaty drawn between the US and Japan in the Treaty of San Francisco had any bearing whatsoever on the true legitimacy of Dokdo. Following World War II, tensions were high and decisions were not made with justice or Korea in mind, but with strategic, preventative measures for potential future clashes with the Eastern Block. The legitimization of Dokdo as Japanese territory during the Cold War should not imply that the 1905 Shimane Prefecture Public Notice was in any way a legitimate, moral, or just means of territorial acquisition.

International agreements were made at a time when Korea was still recovering from an occupation and subject to the powerful influence of America and the threat of the impending Korean war. Furthermore, these agreements were founded on precedents established during Japan’s imperial era. When grappling with such a sensitive topic as that of the legitimacy of Korea’s or Japan’s claim over Dokdo, we must bear in mind that resorting to some sort of Code of Hammurabi to settle matters, rather than engaging in dialogue and understanding, will get nobody anywhere. From allegations of it being a terra nullius, Dokdo has become akin to a terra damnata, a constant source of strife and argumentation. The object is to create a constructive attitude upon which Korea and Japan may build their future. In so doing, however, we must keep in mind past injustices and attempt to settle matters as fairly and peacefully as possible. As the 16th president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun said

Dokdo for us is not merely a matter pertaining to territorial rights over tiny islets but is emblematic of bringing closure to an unjust chapter in our history with Japan and of the full consolidation of Korea’s sovereignty.