Dispute over volcanic rocks a stumbling block in Korean-Japanese relations

Dispute over volcanic rocks a stumbling block in Korean-Japanese relations

Dokdo Islands, July 30, 2010. Photo: Republic of Korea on Flickr; cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.

A territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan is largely symbolic, said Alexander Bukh at a recent Center for Korean Studies event.

UCLA International Institute, April 5, 2016 — In a lecture at the Center for Korean Studies on March 31, Alexander Bukh examined the civic activist dimension of the territorial dispute between Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islets in the Sea of Japan. Bukh is senior lecturer at the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

As part of his talk, Bukh showed film clips from an upcoming documentary on which he is working. The film looks at the activist leaders involved in the dispute in South Korea and Japan, respectively. He emphasized the symbolic nature of the disagreement, arguing that it had less to do with territory and more to do with national identity on both sides.

The two small islets are volcanic rock with no potable water, making them essentially inhabitable. At present, they house just two permanent residents and 40 South Korean coast guards (who are rotated in and out every two months). Nevertheless, Bukh said that the territorial dispute over islets — known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan — has become one of the most contentious issues in Korean-Japanese relations, second only to the issue of comfort women (Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the occupying Japanese Army before and during World War II).


Seized in 1905 by Japan just prior to the signing of the treaty that made Korea a protectorate of Japan, the islets were administered by the Shimane Prefecture of Japan until the country’s defeat in World War II 1945. During the subsequent U.S. occupation of Japan, General MacArthur placed a boundary around Japan — subsequently known as the “MacArthur line” — and forbid Japan to fish outside of that boundary. The Dokdo/Takeshima islets fell outside that boundary.

Although both countries officially continue to claim the territory, “the islands have been effectively South Korean since 1952,” said Bukh. Neither the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty between Japan and the Allied Powers, nor the 1965 Basic Relations Treaty that normalized relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea made any mention of the islets. A fisheries agreement between the two nations that was in effect between 1965 and 1999 also failed to mention them, but permitted both nations to fish the waters near the islets.

Akexander Bukh. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.) According to Bukh, the dispute became re-animated in 1999 when a new fisheries agreement sparked a strong protest movement in Korea, where civic groups rejected the agreement because it did not explicitly deny Japanese claims to the islets. Numerous civic protest movements then arose in both countries, with Japanese activist organizations in Shimane province pushing for the declaration of a national “Takeshima Day.” In the end, they succeeded in establishing such a day only in Shimane province — the former colonial administrator of the islets — in 2004.

Bukh claimed that the passage of this annual celebration stemmed from both Japanese identity politics and Shimane provincial-central government relations. The prefecture resented a national policy that officially laid claim to the islands but clearly ignored the issue in practice, explained the speaker. The fierce Korean reaction to Takeshima Day in Shimane took the Japanese by surprise, he said.

Thousands of protest groups on the issue subsequently formed all over Korea. In Japan, the issue is less well-known and civic activism is less widespread, but active civic groups in Shimane are supported by both traditional Japanese nationalist organizations, as well as by more radical nationalist movements whose members include young people.

Protecting rights their states have failed to protect

Bukh showed clips of interviews with the South Korean (male) leader of the All-Korea Federation for Protecting Dokdo and the Japanese (female) leader of the Association for Protecting Prefectural Takeshima. The two leaders, who both belong to the immediate post-World War II generation, are asked identical questions about themselves and the islands.

Their answers, pointed out Bukh, are surprisingly similar. Both leaders are convinced that their states have failed them in this matter and that they, as citizens, must act to protect their national rights. The Korean leader had been active in the leftist student movement of the 1980s and but later became a city-level politician for a conservative party in Seoul, where he resides. He currently drives the bus for a kindergarten run by his wife. The Japanese leader, a native of Shimane Prefecture, is a former housewife and mother of four who grew up and lives in Shimane province.

The islets clearly occupy a large part in the national imagination of the two civic leaders. The Korean gentleman travels to Shimane each year to protest the Japanese territorial claim during Takeshima Day, each time writing his protest sign in his own blood. In her interview, the Japanese woman recounts that she is concerned by the anxiety of young Japanese living in the country and the need to restore the nation’s vitality. Although she believes the islands belong to her province and Japan, she explicitly disavows any support for rightist organizations in Japan, saying her group and the rightists “belong to completely different worlds.”

Bukh concluded that the dispute was symbolic, more about nationalism than territory. “The Korean position is that we own it, we administer it, we’re never going to give it up,” he said. For the Japanese, he added, it would be political suicide to ask that Korea give up the islets. “So why claim something that will never come back?” he asked.

At the level of individual activists, he implied that the territorial claims served the personal needs of people for a strong national identity during difficult times. He pointed out that the issue had come to prominence in the 2000s because of the collapse of the democratic vision in Korea during its implementation of neoliberal economic policies* and because of the collapse of the economy in Japan.

* Following the Asian economic crisis in 1997, South Korea implemented neoliberal economic reforms as part of a painful structural adjustment administered by the International Monetary Fund.

Published: Tuesday, April 05, 2016