Asia Times, Mar 23, 2005
Japan-South Korea ties on the rocks
By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - When are a few sea-swept, uninhabited rocky islets more than a bunch of rocks? When they involve lucrative fisheries and emotional issues that hark back to the days of the Japanese Empire.
The two tiny, rocky islets surrounded by 33 smaller rocks also represent sovereignty and national pride for both Japan and South Korea - though Seoul controls them now and the lucrative fishing in the area. The disputes over the islands - called Tokdo by Koreans and Takeshima by Japanese - threaten the recent rapprochement between the two neighbors and represent a significant political and economic setback. The South Korean public is so incensed that hundreds have poured into the streets to protest and the united front against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is cracking.
The most recent dispute erupted on February 23 when the assembly in Shimane Prefecture, the Japanese territory closest to the island. Submitted a bill to set up a symbolic prefectural ordinance establishing February 22 as Takeshima Day, named for the Japanese./claimed island - and infuriating South Korea. A comment on February 23 by Toshiyuki Takano, the Japanese ambassador to Seoul, saying the islands are part of Japanese territory exacerbated the situation.
This marine tinderbox was ignored for years, and it has now blown up, metaphorically and politically speaking, with powerful financial, trade and diplomatic repercussions for both nations - and for Northeast Asia as a whole, particularly as regards the North Korea nuclear crisis.
On Tuesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said Tokyo would find it difficult to resume stalled talks quickly on signing a free-trade agreement with South Korea this year because of the Takeshima/Tokdo (also known as Tokto or Dokto) territorial dispute, Kyodo News reported.
A day earlier, South Korea announced that it would set up a parliamentary committee to press Seoul’s claims over the contested islets.
The feud over the rocky and remote islets in the Sea of Japan (known in Korea as the East Sea) claimed by both Tokyo and Seoul has already chilled the recent warming of the two countries’ relations. South Korea regards the islands as Japan’s first step in its colonial aggression and march into Korea, which it occupied from 1910-45; Japan incorporated the islets in 1905. Japanese fishermen and politicians, on the other hand, are deeply resentful of what they believe is rightfully their territory and livelihood.
The issue has sparked passionate protests in Seoul, where demonstrators claim their sovereignty is being violated. Two Korean demonstrators even cut off their fingers outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to show their fury. Activists gathering around the embassy have burned Japan’s national flag and photos of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, while some civil groups and "netizens" have declared a boycott of Japanese goods, according to Japanese and Korean media.
The two countries’ relations will likely be further challenged in the coming month, as South Korea is poised to hold crucial by-elections for national legislators on April 30. The ruling Uri Party and the main opposition Grand National Party are both very likely to go along with the hardline stance over this unresolved territorial issue with Tokyo, to demonstrate their nationalist credentials and win the majority control of the national assembly.
The fuss over a controversial Japanese junior-high-school history textbook will also likely add fuel to Seoul’s flames of ire, as Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is expected to announce its screening results of the textbook early next month. Although 2005, which will see the 40th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea, has been designated Friendship Year, the by-election and approval of a textbook are both sure to strain relations.
For the Japanese, especially people in Shimane who live closest to the fishing grounds, this territorial dispute is a major fisheries and economic issue rather than a pure territorial and political dispute, which usually stirs up national sentiment just as in South Korea. In Japan, Takeshima is known as a rich fishing ground that is in effect occupied by South Korea. Thus Japanese fishermen have complained that they have been virtually pushed out of the area for many years. Meanwhile, South Koreans strongly believe that Tokdo was the first victim of Japan’s colonial invasion of Korean territory and they consider Tokyo’s territorial claim to be infringement upon their interests and sovereignty. For them, this issue is a microcosm of Japan’s brutal colonial occupation.
This is not the only territorial dispute faced by Japan. To the south, it is engaged in a sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands) and competing development of offshore gas fields in the East China Sea. In the north, it has the thorny issue of the Russian-held Northern Territories, known in Russia as the Southern Kurils.
Unless Japan and South Korea swiftly take steps to stop the current torrent of anti-Japanese feelings and distrust among Koreans, the situation could deteriorate further, delivering a devastating blow to the progress toward better bilateral relations that has been achieved since the two nations co-hosted the 2002 World Cup and, more recently, social and cultural exchanges exemplified by the recent culture boom called Han-Ryu (Korean wave) in Japan.
For the time being, Japanese politicians, especially rightists, should avoid provocative actions and remarks over this territorial dispute and the related textbook row, while the South Korean government and media need to calm down, take a deep breath to control their anger and avoid been swept up in the counterproductive wave of nationalism.
Thorny issue shelved at one time
Takeshima is 157 kilometers northwest of Oki Island and 74km from South Korea’s nearest island, and it consists of two small islets with a total area of 0.23 square kilometer, plus a scattering of rocks nearby. In terms of size, this is trifling - less than one-tenth the area of Central Park in Manhattan, New York City. Takeshima literally means "bamboo island" in Japanese. This is because it is said that this disputed outcropping of volcanic rock used to be more bamboo-shaped, with more rough edges, as seen from a distance. Bamboo, however, cannot grow there. Now the islets look more rounded because of weathering. Meanwhile, in Korean, Tokdo literally means "lonely island" or "independent island".
Historically, both sides have maintained territorial claims and have been at loggerheads over the boundary. The simmering issue, however, flares only occasionally, as it has recently.
Behind this skirmishing are three major points of contention: Which country found the islands first and then controlled them effectively.
The validity of Japan’s incorporation of Takeshima into its own territory in January 1905, around the time when Japan in effect deprived Korea of its diplomatic power and property rights. On February 22 in the same year, Shimane prefecture declared the island to be part of its territory. South Korea calls the incorporation of Takeshima null and void, since it was in no position at the time of its implementation to lodge strong opposition to Tokyo.
The final point is the ambiguity of the interpretations of Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP) Douglas MacArthur’s Instruction Note No 677 of January 29, 1946, during the occupation of Japan after World War II. This note excluded the islands from Japan’s administrative authority. However, the instruction specifically stated that it was not an "ultimate determination" of the islands’ future sovereignty. All other islands listed in the document eventually were returned to Japan. The 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, which settled the sovereignty of most other disputed islands, did not mention Takeshima.
The two sides have opposite views and interpretations of these three points. (For more details, see the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ The Issue of Takeshima and the South Korean Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries’ Policy About Dokdo.)
Since the end of World War II and Japan’s colonial rule in the Korean Peninsula, South Korea has claimed the islands and maintained effective control over them since 1952, when South Korean president Syngman Rhee issued the so-called Rhee Line, declaring the nation’s sovereignty over waters adjacent to the Korean Peninsula, including the Tokdo.
Since this dispute had been the thorniest issue between two countries, the two countries shelved it when they concluded the normalization treaty in 1965. In 1999, the two countries agreed to put waters around the islands under tentative joint control without sorting out the territorial claims. Both sides agreed not to set an exclusive economic zone around the islands and they clearly spelled out rules on areas where vessels could operate, but Japanese fishing boats have still been blocked from the area.
According to an Asahi Shimbun report, "From around 1980, Japanese and South Korean fishing vessels have worked within such close range of each other around Takeshima that fishing nets have been damaged. That led Shimane fishermen to ask the prefectural government to take action to prevent further problems."
This led the prefecture’s politicians to ask the central government to assert Japan’s sovereignty over Takeshima. But central government officials and national politicians have been very reluctant to take any actions, apparently seeking to avoid another row with Seoul. This is the reason critics say Tokyo officials and politicians may have been asleep at the switch. Fueling the feud was Seoul’s decision in 2002 to turn the islands into a national park and South Korea’s issue of a national stamp January 2004, which featured Tokdo. Shimane prefectural assembly members were upset by Tokyo’s decision not to play up the problem. Particularly, the prefecture has long requested that the central government give the same attention to Takeshima as it does to the Northern Territories, the four islands off Hokkaido that are held by Russia but claimed by Japan.
According to a Mainichi Shimbun report, a fishery cooperative in Oki Island, the closest island to Takeshima, has fishing rights within a 500-meter radius of Takeshima. But the cooperative’s vessels cannot go near the disputed islands, since they would be arrested by South Korean authorities. Seoul has a small military garrison on one of the islets. Fish catches off Oki in 2003 totaled 70,000 tons, less than half of 1993, the Mainichi Shimbun reported.
Frustrated by Tokyo’s inaction on the Takeshima matter, the Shimane prefecture has taken a first step toward declaring its ownership of Takeshima. Seoul reacted with fury. South Korea postponed a scheduled visit by Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon. The governor of Kyongsangbuk-do province said he was severing all sister-city ties with Shimane prefecture and recalled all of staff from Shimane. Many cultural and sports exchanges and sister-city programs involving the two countries’ local governments, including Iwate, Nagano, Aomori and Saitama prefectures on Japan’s side, have been canceled because of concerns over intensifying anti-Japanese feelings in South Korea. Some of those cancellations were reportedly requested by their Korean counterparts.
Further, last Friday Masan city council in South Kyongsang province in South Korea passed a bill declaring its territorial jurisdiction over Japan’s Tsushima Island. Although Seoul called on the council to withdraw the bill, the local body rejected the central government’s appeal, stressing the council’s independent authority to enact relevant legislation.
Moreover, last Wednesday, South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration announced that Seoul would lift restrictions on visiting the disputed islets to reaffirm its actual control over the territory by opening access to them. The government currently restricts the number of visitors to 70 people a day, citing environmental and security reasons, and prohibits reporters from visiting the islands. Every visitor is required to get permission from the governor of North Kyongsang province, which has jurisdiction over the islets. But the central administration will hold discussions with the local government on raising the visitation quota to about 141 visitors a day, while changing the current system requiring official approval into one of simple declaration by visitors. This new system is expected to take effect from this Thursday. The South Korean authorities will also lift prohibitions of on-site media coverage, Japanese and Korean media have reported.
Most important, the Takeshima issue has spilled over into the Blue House presidential office in Seoul. Last Thursday South Korea suddenly changed its policy stance toward Tokyo. It announced a set of principles, including a demand that Tokyo apologize for its past World War II aggression and compensate Koreans victimized during the war. Until recently, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun had indicated that his administration would not raise the history issue in bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea. Now that has changed.
The new set of principles also included the approval of junior-high-school history textbooks about Japan’s role in Korea, China and other Asian countries that Seoul says distort history. In addition, the new principles call for compensation to South Koreans forced to work as "comfort women" during World War II, as well as those who were in Hiroshima or Nagasaki when the United States dropped atomic bombs on those cities in the waning days of the war.
Prime Minister Koizumi told reporters later last Friday that the two nations should look toward the future. "Overcoming emotional confrontation, we should take measures that are forward-looking and which consider ways of developing friendship into the future," Koizumi said, playing down Roh’s new stance in dealing with Tokyo. "Rather than only be concerned about the past, it is important for both sides to promote friendship through a future-oriented way of thinking."
The tension between Japan and South Korea appears not to be allayed by the fact they are important trading nations. Japan is South Korea’s third-largest trading partner after China and the United States, while South Korea is Japan’s third-largest trading partner after China and the US.
Japan and South Korea are negotiating a free-trade agreement (FTA) to strengthen economic ties. The two sides originally aimed to strike the agreement within this year, but the territorial dispute has clouded Japan-Korea economic relations as well. Because of the public fury in Seoul, Korean officials have been unable to return to the negotiating table, although Koizumi and Roh had agreed to resume the negotiations at their summit meeting in Kagoshima prefecture last December. (The FTA talks already had been strained largely by the issue of reduction of tariff rates on farm and marine products.)
The current row over the islets comes at a time when the US, Japan and South Korean are making a common effort as allies to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il must be gratified by this row, seeing a possible split in the coalition (the six-party talks involved North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States); the US must be annoyed by deteriorating relations among its allies. All members of the six-party talks (excluding the US) are increasingly concerned by the United States’ inflexible attitude when it comes to North Korea and making reasonable concessions to solve the crisis.
In the whirlwind of international politics, domestic politics does matter. The issue of the rocky, marine-life-rich islets is a manifestation of both countries’ mounting domestic and local difficulties. Politicians everywhere, especially populists, like to seize the mood of the moment and jump on the bandwagon, acceding to domestic and local public criticism to win points. But they need to avoid riding the wave of nationalist sentiment, especially when trying to preserve and stabilize endangered regional security is so much more important.
Kosuke Takahashi is a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun and is currently a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.