Island Dispute Conflict over Korea and Japan

The dispute between Japan and South Korea over the ownership of Takeshima has been in existence for a long time. The island in question is an isolated group of rocky islets in the Sea of Japan.  They are found in 37 degrees 9 minutes North and 131 degrees 55minutes east, and they cover about 0.23 square kilometers. To the Japanese this area is known as Takeshima and to the South Koreans it is known as Dokto and has been inhabited since ancient times. After World War II, the islands have been occupied by South Korea that claims that they are part of their territory. In South Korea, it is under the jurisdiction of Ulleong-do North Gyeongsang Province, and in Japan, it is under the jurisdiction of Shimane Prefecture (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2011)

This dispute originated in 1952 when the South Korean government established the Syngman Rhee line on January 18th of the same year. Takeshima fell on the South Korean Side of the line although it was part of the Japanese Shimane Prefecture since 1905. The purpose for the establishment of the Syngman Rhee line was to prevent fishing conflicts with Japan as it had fished in the waters next to the peninsula before the 2nd world war. Their fishing activities very close were starting to affect the fishing industry in South Korea. The second reason was that South Korea felt that Takeshima/Dokto was Korean territory according to the San Francisco Peace Treaty. At the beginning, the treaty stated that it was Korean territory, but by the final draft of the treaty, it was Japanese territory. In 1954, South Korea occupied the island with military forces and put up a lighthouse then alerted the Japanese government. The Japanese tried to convince South Korea to resolve the dispute in court but, they refused the idea.

Geographical Recognition

Geographically, Dokdo is one of the furthest islands of Korea measuring 87.4 km southeast of Ulleong-do in East Sea. It is visible from Ulleong when the weather is clear, and naturally it is associated with Ulleungdo Island. Japan has gone to great lengths to dispute this claim that was made as early as in the 15th Century by Sejong Sillok Jiriji. The Dokdo Research Center is publishing a collection of pictures showing Dokdo as seen from Ulleungdo, confirming the relationship described in the ancient scripts and that this island is deeply entrenched in Korean culture. Dokdo consists of two main islets and 35 smaller rocks.

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The area is referred to as Liancourt Rocks by the French whalers in the 1800s’ and is known as that by neural observers till today. Both countries claim ownership to the islands on bases of international law and historical documentation. Republic of South Korea maintains that Liancourt rocks are their territory as supported by historical documentation, geography and international law. South Korea claims that it discovered Liancourt rocks and still administers them presently. According the South Korean ministry of Foreign affairs, the island in question is in their territory because after the liberation from Japanese colonial rule the island was returned to them in the bilateral or multilateral treaties. This was part of the 1943 Cairo declaration and the 1945 Potsdam proclamation that ended Japanese control over Korea (Shmojo, 2010).

The recognition of Dokdo by the international community strengths their claim over Liancourt Rocks and makes it seem that the island truly belongs to the Japanese. The South Koreans attitude towards the ownership of the island after the war was documented in a newspaper publication in 1947. This was after a survey by the Korean government to establish that Dokdo was part of uninhabited islets of Seodo and Dongdo. They also believed that Dokdo was part of their fishing and defense base since early civilization (Han, 1997).

The islands are located 92 km southwest of South Korean Ulleong-do Island, and it forms part of the North Gyeongsang Province. The South Korean claim to Dokto/ Todko is based on a lot of historical documentation, and includes a map done by a Japanese Cartographer Dabuchi Tomohiko mentions Todko and Ullongo as belonging to South Korea. Before the end, of Japanese occupation in South Korea there were Korean inhabitants in the island and the government developed the isles and promoted tourism in the area. Some Koreans, like Ahn Yong-bok travelled to Japan in the late 17th Century and through documentation of his travels, Ulleungdo, and Usando were recognized as Korean territories. The same Korean visited Japan even after the prohibition of fishermen traveling to Ursuroy.

According to the Japanese the Island known as Takeshima was once known as Matsushima, and evidence of its existence in Japan is seen in a map published by the Japanese lands and roads in 1779 by Sekisui Nagakubo. This map shows the location of Takeshima and Utsuryo between Korean peninsula and Oki islands. There was confusion early one with explorers naming Utsuryo as Takeshima and illustrated the island as two in the maps. The foreign affairs ministry also claims that there is evident of the island use by fishermen from documents dating to 1618. At this time, there was a disagreement between Japanese and Koreans regarding passage of fishermen to Utsuryo. To maintain cordial relations with Koreans, Japanese fishermen were banned from going to Utsuryo (Korean territory) but not Takeshima which the Japanese considered as part of their territory. During the seven years war and Russo – Japanese war, the Japanese claim that they occupied Takeshima.

Their claims are made stronger by the annexation of Korea in 1905-1910, where Liancourt rocks were incorporated into Shimane prefecture; therefore, it became part of imperial Japan. Liancourt rocks and the rest of South Korea became Japanese and claims through Ministry of foreign Affairs of Japan, (2004), that the incorporation of Takeshima was done and implemented openly. After the World War II, all disputed territories were taken away from the Japanese, including Takeshima. The Allied forces took is it as a military base for the pacific war as a joint venture between USA and Japan. This supported the claim that Takeshima Island was Japanese Territory. The San Francisco treaty that ended their occupation in Korea reestablished Takeshima as Japanese territory. The establishment of the Syngman Rhee line was an illegal act according to the Japanese government and an act of contravention of International Law.  The refusal by the Republic of South Korea to have the dispute settled in the International Justice Court show part of bad will on their part. They, however, continue to develop and occupy the island by force. There was a document issued during the treaty that mentioned that the issue about the disputed isles was not final concerning Japanese sovereign territory. This forms the basis that Takeshima is theirs; they want it back and every year the Japanese government sends a reminder to Seoul regarding the issue of Takeshima. In 2005, Japan celebrated 100th year anniversary of its occupation of Takeshima islands and this brought a lot of diplomatic controversy between South Korea and Japan. The Republic of South Korea insisted that Japanese publishers should stop publishing that island as part of its territories (Zeno, 1997). 

Historical Documentation

This dispute over Liancourt rocks has historical evidence that back up both claims and is fueled by the former colonial master and master relations. According to South Korea Dokdo island belongs to them and Japan is trying to bully them into relinquishing its claim on the island.

South Korea stakes its claim from a lot of historic documentation that show that Dokdo, which refers to, the Liancourt rocks in Korean, which are in, sits territory.

The historical base of its claim starts with a document written in 1770, Dongguk Munheon Bigo which contains the Yeojigo (geographical characteristics) that claims that Ulleong and Usan islands were part of the Usan territory (Usan – guk and Usando) which was known as Matsushima, which is what the Japanese called Takeshima. To support this claim, Survey of Geography of Korea of 1481 and the Chronicles of King Sejong of 1454 reveal that Usan is Mitsushima. The survey describes Usan and Ulleong as the same island. Dokdo can be seen from Ulleungdo in a clear day and according to historians the island was always part of Ullungdo. In 1454, there was a report that the Silla kingdom conquered the kingdom of Usan-guk, and it is believed Dokdo was part of the territories captured in AD 512. Korean fishermen occupied these islands and the government tried to impact political control over them. According to Scholars Usan-guk later became known as Usando and later as Tokdo by Koreans and Tokdo as Matsushima and later Takeshima by the Japanese.

Korea controlled Ullong - do and Dokdo and in the 15th Century they were listed as part of the Uljin County. In 1416-1881 Korean administrations removed inhabitants from Ulleong-do and Dokdo Island to prevent them from evading taxes and military services. This is according to the annals of Choson dynasty and King T’aejong that give evidence of Korean presence and administration of Ullong-do and Dokdo islands.

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In 1693, there was a dispute between Korean and Japanese fishermen known as the Takeshima incident and the Japanese government recognized Ullong as Korean territory and Dokdo as part of Ullong and under the same jurisdiction. Japanese fishermen were banned from travelling to Korean territory, namely Ullang-do (Hoon, 1997).

In the eighteenth century, Japanese Scholars made maps of Japan and the surrounding areas, Dokdo was included in the map but not as part of Japanese territory or possession. A map of three Adjoining Countries made in 1785, showed Korea in yellow and Japan in Red, with two islands also in Yellow and indicated as Korean possession. Tanippon Enkai Yochi published in 1821 excluded Tokdo or Mitsushima from Japanese territory. This is strong evidence that at around this time the Japanese recognized Dokdo as part of Korean territories.

The Japanese have their own historical backing to their claim on this island, according to them when they declared unoccupied lands in 1905; they knew that no country had claimed sovereignty over the Isles. However there are claims by the Ministry of Foreign affairs that there was an earlier declaration of sovereignty over the isles by the 17th century. Japan had always acknowledged the existence of Takeshima as part of territories. In 1618, some Japanese fishermen travelled to Utsuryo Islands via Takeshima which was a stop over and fishing point and by 1661 the Shogunate granted Hoya and Maraca families feudal tenure over Takeshima.

In 1696, the Japanese government prohibited travel and fishing of Utsuryo but not Takeshima, which show that it considered it as a part of its territories. This prohibition was supposed to prevent Japanese fishermen from going to Korean territories and keep good relations between Korea and Japan. In early 1905, Japan reaffirmed its sovereignty over Takeshima and incorporated it as part of Shimane Prefecture.

When Japan took Korea in its protectorate in 1905, it annexed the Takeshima Island and all Korean territory. The Russo- Japanese war contributed heavily to the Japanese occupation of Korea. At this point, Korea was unable to protect its claim over Dokdo and its other lands and exercise sovereignty over its territories. They also signed another agreement with Japan, stating that all Korean financial matters were to be handled by a Japanese appointed advisor. Despite the ban, on Japanese fishermen travelling to Ulleungdo during the occupation they continued travelling and fishing there aided by good vessel technology. Increased exploitation by Japanese fishermen around 1881 the Korean government stopped the vacant island policy and moved its people to occupy the island. During the Russo- Japanese war in 1904-1905, Ulleungdo and Dokdo became key battle grounds, and there was a proposed development of a military facility in Dokdo.

Fishermen that needed fishing licenses were told not to bother getting licenses from Korean government as the land was “terra nullius”, they should contact Japanese ministry of agriculture and Commerce. Sadly, the Korean did not become aware of the Japanese government incorporation of Dokdo Island until 1906. Most of the post war treaties signed with Japanese government consolidated Japan’s hold on the island. The Portsmouth treaty that ended the Russo- Japanese war, stated Japan’s interest and possession of Korea and The United states signed a secret treaty with Japan in 1905, prohibiting Korea to enter into any foreign treaties. Most of the treaties that Japan signed with other nations after the war Occupation of Korea was apart of the agreement to maintaining peace in East Asia.

Korea’s protests over the annexation by Japan were ignored by the international community, even when King Kojong sent people to Washington but President Theodore Roosevelt did not bother. The international community recognized Japans occupation of Korea as a good thing and there fore ignored Koreas cry for help, and refused to recognize it a sovereign state with its ministry of foreign affairs being dismantled in 1906. After the war, SCAPIN (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers), outlined Japanese territories and clearly stated that the islands under dispute (including Dokdo) between Japan and Korea were excluded from Japanese authority. In a treaty entitled “Minor Islands in the sea of Japan”, Japan hoped to claim sovereignty over Ulleong-do and Dokdo (Byungjoon, 2008). They claimed that no name even exists in Korean for the island and that it does not feature on any Korean map and therefore it can not be Koreans. The San Francisco treaty did not settle the dispute in its entirety even though the disputed islands were returned to Korea. One of the reasons why Dokdo was not properly covered by the treaty is because the Korean president did not provide any evidence on why Dokdo should be part of Korean territories. He focused on getting another Island of Tsushima instead of recovering the ones they lost in the occupation.


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The dispute between Japan and Korea is based more on historical relations than the islands resources. The island is very rich with sea food and it is a meeting point for cold and warm currents creating a favorable climate foe maritime animals and plants. Korea feels that Japan trying to take Dokdo from them is undermining their political stance and sovereignty.  This bitterness and mistrust stems from the Japanese occupation in 1905. This had led to very strained relations between South Korea and Japan till 1965 when the Basic Relations Treaties were signed. It still did not solve the dispute with the USA stance being non recognition of ownership over Dokdo/Takeshima Islets.

            The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan Stakes its claims of sovereignty of Dokdo Islands. Through continued propaganda they have tried to convince people of their right ownership of the Islets. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in South Korea also has made its stance on the Dispute over sovereignty over Dokdo. Their arguments over sovereignty of Takeshima/Dokdo can be summarized as follows

  1. Japan has always acknowledged the existence of Takeshima which was formerly known as Matsushima, through maps made by Japanese cartographers in 1779. The same maps show the Korean peninsula and Dokdo as Korean territories.
  2. Japan claims that the republic of Korea has no evidence on the recognition of Takeshima. The historical documents that South Korea claims give evidence of their sovereignty over the islets. The documents have conflicted information, for example two names are given for one islands so that information is not reliable. South Korea states that it is only natural to agree that Korea did recognize the existence of Dokdo, because of the proximity and visibility of the island in fair weather.
  3. Japan established its sovereignty by mid 21th Century over Takeshima, as it was a path way to Ursuryo. Contra indication to this claim is the documentation that shows that Japan did not consider Dokdo as parts of its territory as seen in a Japanese document “Records of observation in Oki province in1667”.
  4. Japan did not ban travels and fishing on Takeshima Island, it only prohibited to Ulleungdo. This suggests that Takeshima is theirs but from the South Koreans claim that when the Shogun ate banned the travel he admitted that Takeshima was snot part of the territory.
  5. Japan claim that occupation and control of Takeshima is illegal and was not taken on any basis of international law. However, South Korea claims that Japan never established sovereignty over Dokdo it is just an illegal attempt to infringe upon South Korea’s sovereignty. Japan could not have established sovereignty in 1905 because South Korea had already done that.
  6. Japan proposed to South Korea that they take the dispute to the International Court of justice. The refusal by South Korea indicates a lack of good faith on the Korean side. However, South Korea sees this as contradiction where Japan refused to go to court to settle the dispute concerning Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands and insists that the Dokdo issue should be settled in court.
  7. The allies’ position after the war declared Takeshima as a Japanese territory and refused Korea’s request to include it in the treaty. South Korea claims that the signing of the San Francisco treaty left the all the islands under dispute and protectorate of Japan under Korea, but that changed with intense lobbying of Japanese.
  8. Japan incorporated Takeshima into the Shimane Torri-han in 1905 putting it in the Jurisdiction of Okinoshima. Contradiction to this claim is why Japan chose to reaffirm its sovereignty on Takeshima and not over all its other territories. Records shows that even the Japanese fishermen needed to get licenses from the Korean government for sea hunting on the island since they recognized Takeshima being under the South Korean jurisdiction.

The dispute between these two countries over the Dokdo/ Takeshima has not being resolved and conflicts continue between them. Most recent conflicts include the Japanese foreign minister in 1996 reaffirming their territorial claim when South Korea announced their intention to build a wharf on the Islets.

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