[Insight into Dokdo(13)] Ensuring Korea`s sovereignty over Dokdo

  • Published : Apr 4, 2010 - 02:59
  • Updated : Apr 4, 2010 - 02:59

This is the 13th in a series of articles examining the Dokdo controversy from a historical, political and legal perspective. - Ed.

The dispute in July between Seoul and Tokyo surrounding Dokdo revealed the limitations of Korea`s "Dokdo diplomacy." The series of events taught the government a lesson. Its so-called "quiet diplomacy" and actual occupation of Dokdo are not solutions to the problem.
Ironically, it was Japan that used "quiet diplomacy" to successfully claim Dokdo. Its steady efforts of convincing the international community that Dokdo belongs to Japan led the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change Dokdo`s status from "Korean territory" to "undesignated sovereignty" - albeit temporarily.

How Dokdo`s status changed back to `Korean`


On July 26, 2008, the BGN suddenly made a change in Dokdo`s status from Korean to undesignated sovereignty. Public concerns in Korea reached a new level. As we know, by early August, President Bush intervened and had Dokdo`s sovereignty changed back to Korea before his visit to Seoul. But he merely instructed officials to reexamine the issue, after switching it back to the original description. He did not explicitly say Dokdo belonged to Korea. Of course, the U.S. president has no right to make such a statement.
There are two reasons behind Bush`s intervention. One is that it was right before his visit to Korea and the other is that the BGN failed to apply consistent standards in its "undesignated sovereignty" decision. The Korean government cited the fact that the BGN still recognizes Japanese control over other disputed areas, such as the Senkaku Islands. The naming board, as a result, had to admit to double standards and restore Dokdo`s status. Then, why did Dokdo become the sole target? The most plausible answer to this question is that the U.S. board largely supports the Japanese position on the issue.
How the Japanese claim appeals to the global community

What is it about the Japanese claim, which from Korea`s viewpoint is not even worth discussing, that draws international acceptance? Japan`s Diplomatic Bluebook for 2008 states, as usual, that "it is necessary to invite (overseas) intellectuals who wield great influence in forming international opinions in order to deliver Japan`s thoughts, or to support research institutes or universities."
This means that Japan has for a long time placed priority on its diplomatic policy to foster as many foreign collaborators with the Japanese government as possible.
With regard to Dokdo, Japan has also made a systematic effort in line with its policy of planting the idea that Japan should control Dokdo in the minds of international scholars and experts.
Katsuhiro Kuroda, the chief of the Seoul bureau of Japan`s right-wing Sankei Shimbun, said during his appearance on a Korean TV program on Aug. 1 that Japan had lobbied the United States in various ways, as the two nations are close allies, but it did not do so overtly. Kuroda said, "Since we are claiming rights (to Dokdo) on a national level, we have to let the international community know of our stance at every opportunity," as he admitted to Japanese lobbying efforts aimed at major U.S. organizations and figures.
People are prone to believe even a distorted fact if they hear it repeatedly. Japan has long been promoting the idea that "Korea is illegally occupying the Japanese territory of Takeshima" to foreign scholars. It also has a special section entitled "The Issue of Takeshima" in Japanese, English and Korean on its Foreign Ministry website to clarify the Japanese stance. The Web page provides detailed information on the key issues regarding Japan`s Dokdo claim.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry website also has explanations on how Japan`s control over Senkaku Islands is justified. China and Taiwan each claim sovereignty over the islands. Korea`s Foreign Ministry website has links to the ministry-affiliated Northeast Asian History Foundation and websites with information on the Dokdo dispute, which is provided by the Dokdo Research Center under the Korea Maritime Institute. However, those websites lack well-crafted arguments supportive of the Korean government`s stance. Unfortunately, the current situation allows the Japanese argument to be more influential in the international community.

Limitations of Korea`s `quiet diplomacy`

Korea`s Dokdo diplomacy clearly has limitations. When the BGN changed Dokdo`s status to "undesignated sovereignty," the press asked the Korean ambassador to Washington what efforts had been made so far to protect Korea`s sovereignty over Dokdo. The ambassador avoided a direct answer, only repeating he would do his best from then on. It was as if he was confessing that nothing had been done up to that point. The ambassador, of course, did a great job in persuading the U.S. government to change Dokdo`s status back to the original designation. However, Korea cannot protect Dokdo with this kind of strategy.
Korea has dealt with the situation by not reacting, instead relying on quiet diplomacy. It has reasoned that if the Korean government shows any reaction to Japan`s provocations, it could end up being embroiled in the scheme to make Dokdo an internationally disputed region. The idea that good defense will be enough when an enemy continues to invade can be compared to a sports strategy where a team only plays defense, without attacking.

Japan`s `quiet diplomacy`

As was reconfirmed by Kuroda`s remark, Japan has continued to appeal to the international community behind the scenes, saying "Takeshima is Japanese territory." When Dokdo`s sovereignty on the BGN website was restored to Korea from undesignated, the Japanese government even announced that it would continue its effort to overturn the latest decision through unofficial channels.
Korea`s quiet diplomacy approach is counterproductive in the face of Japan`s strenuous effort to spread their claim that Dokdo is Japanese territory "illegally occupied by Korea" across the world. Because the Korean government has not refuted Japan`s argument outright, it could be seen as giving tacit consent to the claim, giving more reasons for international organizations or other nations to conclude that Dokdo has "undesignated sovereignty" as the BGN did.
From an outside perspective, Dokdo is already an internationally disputed region. In fact, only Koreans claim otherwise. All the problems surrounding Dokdo are the tragic consequences of Korea`s distorted quiet diplomacy.

Reaction in Japan

The Japanese showed an unexpected reaction to the BGN situation. Above all, most Japanese people had believed that the U.S. government recognized Dokdo as Japanese territory. Japan`s Foreign Ministry mentions such a belief on its website, saying that the United States concluded that Dokdo belongs to Japan in the San Francisco Peace Treaty which took effect in April 1952. However, through the BGN row, the Japanese realized that Dokdo has always been Korean territory, to their dismay. Also after the naming board changed Dokdo`s status back to Korean territory from undesignated sovereignty in a week, they remained calm but greatly disappointed.
Japanese netizens put up postings online, saying, "The Fukuda government should all resign," "Is the United States really our ally?" "If no revision was made in the beginning, no problem would have occurred," "It is necessary we make as big a fuss about it as the Koreans do" and "It is shocking that Takeshima has always been Korean territory."
The Japanese government, sensitive to the public disappointment, immediately began devising countermeasures. Even after declaring that no official complaint would be lodged, Japan announced it would contact the U.S. government through unofficial channels regarding the issue. Now, concerns are building on how well Korea will cope with Japan`s prompt actions. Hopefully, it will not be careless and overlook the risks, as it did before.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty and Dokdo

Historically speaking, it is true that the U.S. government once thought that Dokdo could be Japanese territory upon signing the San Francisco Peace Treaty with war-defeated Japan in September 1951. This sentiment can be found in several official documents of the U.S. State Department written about 3-4 months before the signing ceremony. The Japanese government only cites the parts of the documents that support the country`s claims on its Foreign Ministry website, to assert that the United States gave Dokdo to Japan.
However, according to Korean researchers, the U.S. stance on which country Dokdo belonged to was not fixed back then. They argue that the United States based its assumption that Dokdo might be Japanese territory on "American intelligence."
After the treaty came into effect in April 1952, Japan intentionally offered Dokdo to the United States as a bombing range. It still uses the U.S. acceptance of the offer as showing the U.S. confirmation that Dokdo is Japanese territory. The truth is, however, the Korean government firmly opposed such use of the islets and the U.S. Armed Forces sent an official letter in response, excluding Dokdo from its bombing ranges. This historical fact provides evidence that the U.S. army recognized Dokdo as Korean territory. Japan knows this but just keeps mum on the subject.

Is a new fisheries agreement key to the Dokdo Issue?

What disappoints Koreans, besides the recent naming brouhaha, is the fact that the BGN officially uses the name Liancourt Rocks, instead of Dokdo. It was in 1977 that the board changed the name from Dokdo to Liancourt Rocks. That was the year when the number of countries implementing the 200-nautical mile limit for territorial waters increased exponentially. Japan`s then Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda publicly criticized Korea for illegally occupying "the Japanese territory Takeshima" after enacting the 200-nautical-mile limit law. With more and more nations drawing their boundaries 200 nautical miles off the coastline, Japan started looking at Dokdo with bigger ambitions.
As the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea took effect in 1994, establishing the principle of a 200-nautical-mile limit on a nation`s exclusive economic zone, Japan unilaterally announced the abrogation of the existing fisheries treaty with Korea to sign a new one. In January 1999, the two countries announced the new fisheries agreement, setting the middle zone (in the East Sea) in which Dokdo was included. The Korean government maintained that the new Korea-Japan Fisheries Agreement dealt exclusively with fisheries, not territorial issues. Japan also has not connected the two issues in their argument against Korea.
Then, how should we evaluate the new fisheries treaty? Above all, we have to know that there was a dispute as to where Dokdo belongs, upon the establishment of the middle zone. The new treaty does not deal with territorial issues, but it is true that Korea and Japan argued over who was to take Dokdo during the negotiation of the bilateral treaty.
Japan, as it claimed rights to Dokdo, said it would set its East-Sea base-point for the EEZ at Dokdo. In response, Korea offered to set its base-point at Ulleungdo, regarding Dokdo as a set of uninhabitable rocks, and proposed that Japan set its base-point at Oki Islands. In accordance with the international law of the sea, a rock cannot be used to generate an economic zone. The Korean government thought the offer would settle both the Dokdo and EEZ issues as the islets are within its proposed economic zone.

However, Japan did not accept Korea`s argument that Dokdo is a set of uninhabitable rocks. If Japan had accepted that, it would also have to view its concrete-covered Okinotori Islands, south of Japan, the same way. The islands are indeed a set of rocks, with only 30 centimeters poking out of the ocean. But Japan had already declared the islands as its southern EEZ base-point. Therefore, it could not agree opinion. The failure to find common ground with Korea led to the establishment of the middle zone.
In other words, Japan claimed its rights to Korea-controlled Dokdo by choosing the islets as its EEZ base-point. Basically, the Korean government did not handle the matter wisely, failing to put an end to Japan`s Dokdo-related provocation. The middle zone is a by-product of such failure. In the late 1990s, Korea had yet to develop a well-organized, logical approach to asserting its territorial rights to Dokdo.
If Korea fails to prove that Dokdo is without doubt Korean territory, even a new fisheries agreement will not help resolve the dispute. The heart of the Dokdo issue is in whether Korea can logically explain its sovereignty over Dokdo. Korea`s argument must overpower the Japanese one in order to enforce its demand in resetting the base-points of the two countries. So the fundamental problem is not with the current fisheries agreement but with Korea`s logic. In 2006, the Roh Moo-hyun administration turned away from its previous stance and asserted Korea`s EEZ base-point should be at Dokdo. Whether or not the fisheries agreement is nullified, the Korean government will have to first overcome the limits of its strategy.

Korea`s Dokdo logic

As mentioned before, it seems obvious that there were holes in the logic of Korea`s territorial claim to Dokdo in the 1990s. It also seems reasonable to assume that Korea was not prepared to logically refute Japan`s well-organized argument when it had to discuss the matter in international occasions, because it tended to ignore the Japanese claim, saying it was "not worth discussing."
However, Korea began full-fledged research activities on Dokdo when Japan`s Shimane Prefecture designated "Takeshima Day" in 2005. Since then, Korean researchers have added to existing research with new studies on Dokdo and have discovered new data and maps. They have also been trying to verify the logic on Korea`s sovereignty over Dokdo in accordance with international law. In that process, Japanese scholastic achievements regarding the issue streamed into Korea.
The launch of the Foreign Ministry-affiliated Northeast Asian History Foundation and the Dokdo Research Center under the Korea Maritime Institute, together with the establishment of university research centers dedicated to Dokdo, helped boost nationwide research. More academic papers were published about Dokdo domestically. Therefore, the Korean government is currently at a stage where it is completing its official, representative stance on its sovereign rights to Dokdo. Upon completion, Korea`s arguments will have much more substance, compared to those of January 1999.

Loopholes in Japanese logic

There are several blind spots in Japan`s claim over Dokdo. These can be seen by analyzing the Takeshima page on Japanese Foreign Ministry website. First, there is hardly any reference to the Edo period (1603-1867), during which Japan declared three times that Dokdo was part of Joseon territory, and the Meiji period (1868-1912), when official documents recognizing Joseon`s rights to Dokdo were published. Those periods cover about 200 years, spanning from the late 17th century to 1905. Japan now avoids any mention of the periods because a considerable number of documents published during that time are unfavorable to its current claims.
The Takeshima page does not include what happened after 1962. Not a word can be found in regards to the Korea-Japan Basic Treaty signed in 1965. Instead, the website states: "(In) March 1962, Japan again made a similar proposal (that the Dokdo dispute be submitted to the International Court of Justice), but once more no positive response was forthcoming from the ROK side."
By stating its case in this way, Japan made it seem like Korea was the one with problems, for not wanting to settle the Dokdo issue in court. However, the historical truth is, Japan constantly asked Korea that the international court deal with the issue, up until Feb. 22, 1965 when the Korea-Japan Basic Treaty was signed. Korea, for its part, maintained its stance that there is "no dispute regarding Dokdo" (since it is clearly Korean territory). So in the end, the basic treaty was concluded without any reference to the islets.
Besides, the treaty only lists "diplomatic settlement" or "mediation by a third party" as possible solutions to any dispute between the two countries, without mentioning the ICJ. That means, according to the treaty, Japan could not demand that the ICJ rule on the matter after 1965. And it has never officially proposed to Korea that the two countries take the issue of Dokdo to the ICJ since 1965.
Knowing that it had recognized Korea`s sovereignty over Dokdo while drafting the bilateral treaty, the Japanese government deliberately omitted all references to the 1965 deal from its Foreign Ministry website. Ironically, however, Korea has been dragged into Japan`s psychological warfare, misjudging that Korea might lose if the issue is tried in international court.
In fact, those who argue that Dokdo`s sovereignty be ruled by the ICJ are Japanese scholars and citizens, not the government.

Breakdown in Japanese logic

Japan`s logic in claiming the islets is on the verge of breakdown.
Up to now, the Japanese government has stressed the fact that Dokdo is not on the list of Korean territory that Japan was to surrender in the San Francisco treaty. The website only mentions the fact that in July 1951, then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk rejected Korea`s demand that Dokdo be included in its territory. He said, "(This) normally uninhabited rock formation was, according to our information, never treated as part of Korea (before 1905)." Japan asserts that this is a bona-fide proof that shows Dokdo belongs to Japan.
In July 2008, when the naming board controversy erupted, professor Kim Chai-hyung at Pukyong National University discovered an official document of the U.S. State Department, refuting and denying Japan`s arguments, from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Korea`s vernacular daily Dong-A Ilbo published the following article on its Aug. 2, 2008 edition:

"The letters from Dean Rusk leave room for Korea to prove that Dokdo was treated as part of Korean territory before 1905, when the islets went under the jurisdiction of Shimane Prefecture. If Korea can prove that, it can legally establish that Dokdo belongs to Korea."
"The U.S.-Japan Administrative Agreement does not necessarily imply that the United States recognized Japan`s rights to Dokdo."
"These are excerpts from an internal report written by the State Department in 1954. Japanese scholars often use the 1951 Rusk documents, written right before the San Francisco treaty, and the 1952 U.S.-Japan Administrative Agreement to support their claim over Dokdo."
Until now, Japan has been consistently arguing that "the international community including the United States recognized Dokdo as part of Japanese territory in the process of handling the aftermath of World War II." However, according to the internal report, the U.S. government took the position that "a series of U.S. measures regarding Dokdo should not be interpreted as saying that the islets` sovereignty lies with Japan" in the early 1950s. Pukyung National University professor Kim Chai-hyung, who is also vice president of the Korean Society of International Law, said that he found the State Department report at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. The report, dated Aug. 26, 1954, is entitled "Conflicting Korean-Japanese Claims to Dokdo Island (otherwise known as Takeshima or Liancourt Rocks)."
Kim has been trying for about a year to find documents at the U.S. archives, concerning the discussion on Dokdo`s sovereignty when the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed.
The State Department report first gives a detailed explanation on how Dokdo was excluded from the list of Korean territory that Japan was to return in Article 2 of the San Francisco treaty. It then points out that whether the accord implies a legal decision that Dokdo remains with Japan was still a question.
The 1945 Potsdam Declaration stated that "minor islands," along with Honshu and Hokkaido, remain under Japanese sovereignty. So the State Department pointed out that there could be a controversy on whether Japan has rights to all the islands that are not mentioned in the San Francisco treaty, which succeeds the Potsdam Declaration. It added that it was also controversial whether those who drafted the treaty intended to include those minor islands.
The internal report also criticizes the Rusk documents. When the Korean government requested to the United States a month before the San Francisco treaty was concluded that Dokdo be included in Korean territory to be returned, Rusk replied: "As regards the islands of Dokdo, otherwise known as Takeshima or Liancourt Rocks, this normally uninhabited rock formation was, according to our information, never treated as part of Korea and since about 1905 has been under the jurisdiction of the Oki Islands Branch Office of Shimane Prefecture of Japan."
On this, the report points out that "it can be considered controversial whether the Rusk documents were based on enough historical understanding."
The 1952 U.S.-Japan Administrative Agreement designates Dokdo as a "Japanese facility and area to be used as a U.S. bombing range." But the report notes that the fact that Washington accepted Dokdo as a Japanese facility and area does not necessarily mean that Washington recognized Dokdo as belonging to Japan.
The report further clarifies this, saying that it was because Washington notified Seoul that "it would not use Dokdo as a U.S. bombing range," following Korea`s protest.
Professor Kim said that "the State Department report explains point by point why the United States seemed to have been on the Japanese side in regards to the Dokdo issue upon signing the San Francisco treaty." He added the report prevents Japan from asserting its own interpretation of the situation.
"It has been revealed that Japanese scholars have wrongfully claimed Dokdo through their own interpretation of certain documents in Japan`s interest, without carefully examining diplomatic documents," Kim said.
(The DongA Ilbo, Aug. 2, 2008)

With this latest development, Japan`s claim will surely begin to fall apart.
Japan`s other argument is that the Syngman Rhee Line was illegally drawn. But according to my research, many countries worldwide have declared such lines since the 1940s. Considering these international precedents and the fact that Japan itself began acquiescing to the line around 1954, the Syngman Rhee Line cannot be deemed illegal. The line existed until 1965 before it was peacefully nullified, following the Korea-Japan Basic Relations Treaty. Therefore, only Japan claims the illegality of the line. Japan`s parliamentary minutes has several remarks admitting that Japan is the only country with such a claim. My opinion is that if Korea successfully organizes its stance, it can overpower the Japanese one without much difficulty.

Future tasks and prospects

However, the problem is not just Japan, but that Korea itself has yet to realize that its own case is superior. This is because of Korea`s bureaucratic structure, which does not facilitate the spread of the latest information to relevant parties.
Korea should overcome this internal drawback to better support its logic on territorial rights to Dokdo, at the same time promoting its rights more effectively to international organizations and figures. Japan for its part, hires experts for its promotion.
Japan will continue its own quiet diplomacy and has virtually started efforts to persuade the U.S. naming board to change the standards on regions of "undesignated sovereignty" in Japan`s favor. Korea should soon begin effective promotion of its rights to Dokdo in the international community, with measures that will counter Japan`s logic. Otherwise, the BGN might again change Dokdo`s status back to "undesignated sovereignty".
Japan`s mid-term goal is to jointly control Dokdo with Korea. That`s what most Japanese scholars advocate. As Korea is already occupying the islets, unless Japan wages a war against Korea and wins, it cannot claim Dokdo as its own. So Japan`s strategy is to continue provoking and pressuring Korea so that Seoul will make a concession and agree to jointly control Dokdo with Tokyo. Japan is making the most of its diplomatic hand in that way.

Reasons behind Japan`s Dokdo claim

Why does Japan persistently claim Korea-controlled Dokdo? Any Korean would ask that. Before answering the question, Koreans should first understand that it is the Japanese government that is after Dokdo, not the Japanese people, who seldom show interest in the issue.
There are several reasons behind Japan`s claim over Dokdo.
First, Japan has territorial issues, including the Kuril Islands of Russia (called Northern Territories in Japan) and the Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyutai Islands in China), along with Dokdo. Japan could be driven to the corner in all the other disputes, if it is overpowered by Korea in the Dokdo issue. That`s why Japan is so adamant about its claim over the Korean islets.
Regarding the pending three territorial issues, Japan only occupies the Senkaku Islands.
Russia controls the Kuril Islands. This means that for the Senkaku Islands, Japan has to emphasize its occupation based on international law and historical evidence, and for the Kuril Islands and Dokdo, it has to reversely stress that the occupation of the disputed territories by Russia and Korea is in breach of international law and historical truth.
Interestingly, Japan suggested the ICJ settlement only to Korea in regards to the Dokdo issue. Despite its claim that Russia is illegally occupying its Northern Territories, Japan has never insisted on an ICJ resolution. So far, it has only made diplomatic efforts to settle the dispute. Although Japan and Russia restored diplomatic relations in 1956, they have yet to sign a peace treaty. With this complicated situation in consideration, Japan is abstaining from bringing out the international court proposal to Russia.
Then, what about the Dokdo situation? As mentioned above, Japan has never officially demanded that the Dokdo issue be taken to the ICJ, since the Korea-Japan Basic Treaty was signed in 1965. The basic treaty is a peace accord, and the signing of it means no territorial disputes remain. Nonetheless, Tokyo still argues on its Foreign Ministry website that Seoul refused to take the issue to international court in 1962. In this way, Japan is hinting that it could eventually seek an ICJ solution, although it has yet to lodge an official complaint.
A closer look at Japan`s attitude toward Russia and Korea will reveal a clear difference. Although Japan is pushing to take the Dokdo issue to international court, it is still continuing diplomatic efforts to win back the Russia-controlled Kuril Islands. This dualistic approach by the Japanese government can be explained in terms of its relations with the United States. Tokyo thinks that it could have Washington`s backing as far as Dokdo is concerned. But it cannot expect the U.S. help in settling the dispute with Russia. In other words, Japan`s policy on these territorial issues depends entirely on the global power structure and political dynamics, instead of relying on the facts.
As for the dispute involving the Senkaku Islands, Japan is not likely to accept any proposal by China or Taiwan that the issue be settled in international court. This contradicts its attitudes toward Korea. Japan`s arguments can be summed up as "Japan is correct in all its claims, while other nations are wrong." How Japan deals with its past atrocities - territorial disputes, history textbook distortion, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and the sexual slavery issue - all display extreme self-centeredness.

200-mile exclusive economic zone

The second reason that Japan cannot give up its claim over Dokdo is because of the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. Many countries in the world adopted the 200-mile limit in 1977 to delineate their EEZs. Japan also decided to adopt the limit that year. Japan resumed its claim over the islets as it can claim larger waters in the East Sea by using Dokdo as the base point for its 200-mile limit. To do that, it needed to weaken Korea`s control over Dokdo by appealing to the international community. It seems likely that with that decision, Japan boosted its overseas lobbying activities.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has been using "Liancourt Rocks" as Dokdo`s name, in line with Japan`s strategy. Despite the public outcry over the Dokdo issue, the Korean government has dealt with the situation with its so-called quiet diplomacy. As a result, the situation is unfavorable to Korea.
We should remember that Japan and the United States only fought once, during the Pacific War. At other times in history, they have always moved in the same direction.

By Yuji Hosaka