February 16, 2023
SEOUL – Amid challenges to democracy around the world and military escalation in Asia, the United States, South Korea and Japan are discussing how to strengthen security cooperation. But Koreans have ample reason to feel uneasy. Will they be asked to ignore a territorial infringement that began 118 years ago?
On Feb. 22, 1905, Japan arbitrarily “incorporated” Dokdo, a group of rocky islets known as Takeshima in Japan. The annexation supposedly was to ensure the safety of Japanese fishermen. But more importantly, Dokdo and Ulleungdo, some 88 kilometers apart from each other, had strategic value.
At war against Russia, Japan used the islands as military watchtowers and communication bases. In May 1905, in waters southeast of Ulleungdo and Dokdo, the Japanese navy nearly annihilated Russia’s Baltic Fleet to emerge as a new world power. Before the year ended, as the US stayed silent, Japan forced the waning Joseon court to relinquish its diplomatic rights and become a protectorate. The pact solidified grounds for the colonization of Korea.
A half century later, Dokdo again fell victim to postwar shuffling. The San Francisco Peace Treaty, which was signed on Sept. 8, 1951, to effectively end World War II, excluded Dokdo from the Korean islands that defeated Japan should give up.
The sheaf of documents in the four-year lead-up to the peace treaty included two pivotal opinions. In his letter, dated Aug. 9, 1951, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Dean Rusk wrote, “As regards the island 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 of Shimane Prefecture of Japan. This island does not appear ever before to have been claimed by Korea.”
Without clarifying what he meant by “our information,” Rusk flatly rejected the Korean government’s request for treaty revision, dated July 19, 1951, and sent to US Secretary of State Dean Acheson. It asked that Article 2, Paragraph (a) be replaced and state: “Japan confirms that it renounced on Aug. 9, 1945, title and claim to Korea and the islands which were part of Korea prior to its annexation by Japan, including the islands Quelpart, Port Hamilton, Dagelet, Dokdo and Parangdo.”
Earlier, in a telegram to Secretary Acheson, dated Nov. 14, 1949, William J. Sebald, chief political advisor to Gen. Douglas MacArthur and a well-known Japan expert, recommended that the inclusion of the Liancourt Rocks among the islands to be transferred to the Koreans be reconsidered. He wrote, “Japan’s claim to these islands is old and appears valid … Security considerations might conceivably envisage weather and radar stations thereon.”
Sebald’s recommendation was incorporated in the US State Department’s final treaty draft of Dec. 9, 1949, in which Dokdo was deleted from the list of Korean islands to be relinquished by Japan. Korea, suffering national division and internecine armed conflict, was allowed to neither present its opinion nor participate as a signatory. The treaty was signed by Japan and 48 Allies including the US, determining Korea’s territorial boundary and rights to compensation for war damage and colonial exploitation.
Tokyo insists that, in the wake of its defeat in World War II, Japan was not obliged to renounce Dokdo because it controlled the island before its annexation of Korea. It is Tokyo’s consistent position that Dokdo does not fall subject to the required return of “territories taken by violence and greed,” as defined by the Cairo Declaration of 1943, which stipulated treatment of Japan. Therefore, Japan argues, the exclusion of Dokdo in the San Francisco Peace Treaty was justifiable.
Ostensibly, Japan’s stance may seem correct. But a rudimentary knowledge of geography is enough to note that the Korean Peninsula is surrounded by some 3,300 islands, of which only three of the largest were listed in the treaty – Jeju Island (Quelpart), Geomundo (Port Hamilton) and Ulleungdo (Dagelet). The uninhabitable rocky islets of Dokdo in the East Sea, which is also known as the Sea of Japan, have long been considered an annex to Ulleungdo by the Koreans.
Japan incorporated Dokdo when global powers grabbed territory in faraway places for economic and strategic purposes and Korea’s national strength was declining. On clear days, Dokdo is visible from Ulleungdo with a naked eye, but it is not visible from the Oki Islands of Shimane Prefecture, the nearest Japanese islands. The Oki Islands are about 160 kilometers away.
The San Francisco Peace Treaty served as the basis for the treaty of 1965 between Korea and Japan to normalize relations. In brokering the treaty, Washington wanted a quick resolution amid its prolonged burden in Vietnam. Korea, for its part, needed Japan’s monetary reparation to fund its economic modernization. Thorny historical issues were pushed aside, or frozen, rather than discussed and resolved, planting seeds for long-festering conflicts between the two neighbors.
Why does Japan still deny Korean sovereignty? There is no practical military value in the isolated rock formation. Does Japan want access to the rich marine resources and gas deposits around Dokdo? Or is it a matter of pride after refusing to fully address its 20th century wrongdoings against Korea and other Asian nations? Then, it is a no less serious issue of national pride for the Koreans as well.
Friendly relations, let alone a strategic alliance between nations, are questionable if they are engaged in a territorial dispute. Can they be expected to help protect each other’s territory when they do not respect each other’s territorial sovereignty?
Obviously, the US is pushing to raise its military posture in Asia in response to China’s military buildup and North Korea’s missile tests. Will Washington once again look the other way on Dokdo and pressure Korea to fall in line, considering alliance with Korea as second fiddle to its ties with Japan? All three countries should review their respective roles in the past and work together to reboot for healthier relations.