The Liancourt Rocks burden in Japanese-Korean bilateral relations

After a period of diplomatic cease-fire in the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict between South Korea and Japan, an old issue has now powerfully resurfaced. By recently confirming its territorial claim over the Liancourt Rocks in its annual foreign policy report, Tokyo has caused another breakdown in already strained bilateral relations.

The Dokdo/Takeshima Island by



Why the Island matters?

Dokdo/Takeshima Island has been under South Korea’s administration since 1954, and is classified as a part of  Ulleung County, North Gyeongsan Province (for Japan, Takeshima is part of Okinoshima, in Oki District, Shimane Prefecture). The territory consists of two main islands and about 30 smaller rocks. In normal terms, it’s not a place that could be considered as an interesting tourist attraction (although, because of the dispute, many Koreans and foreigners visit the Island as a part of ‘ad hoc’ tours). Moreover, it lacks in  natural resources, such as minerals or deposits of oil and gas, and, theoretically, the only evident source of the dispute might be a rich fishing area around.

Accordingly, this matter differentiates the Liancourt Rocks conflict from the dispute over Kuril Islands, being contested between Japan and the Russian Federation. Apart from good fishing camps, the Kuril Islands are thought to have offshore reserves of oil and gas (including a very rare and expensive element-rhenium-which is highly required in the aerospace industry).

However, that’s not the only reason that makes the Japanese-Korean dispute different from the other, as well as a very difficult one to solve. Underlying its causes are issues that require a closer look to the historical background and to the unquestionable emotional significance that the conflict has developed in the public eye.


Seizure of the Japanese ships by Korean Coast Guard
Seizure of the Japanese ships by Korean Coast Guard-1953
Embracing history

The Island was the first territory annexed by Japan in 1905, an action which initiated the colonization of the peninsula and, consequently, several wartime atrocities reportedly committed by Japanese soldiers. For Koreans, giving up the island would be therefore equal to a legitimization of the above mentioned events, which took place during a very controversial time. The relevance of this matter has been shown in a research conducted by The Genron NPO and the East Asia Institute in 2014, targeting both the Japanese and the South Korean public.  Being asked about their first associations connected with  Japan, over 66% of South Korean respondents answered  “the issue of Dokdo”, 55.8% “comfort women”, and “unfavorable words by politicians” (24.3%). Significantly different approach was presented by Japanese public opinion, for whom the “issue of Takeshima Island” (36.7%) and “comfort women” (31.0%) were almost as important as the “Korean cuisine” (46.0%), “Korean TV drama and K-POP” (36.3%) and the “sinking of the MV Seoul” (38.2%).

The set of answers to the question on “historical events or incidents in Japan and South Korea that you know” has confirmed the differences in perception of historical issues’ importance. The dominant answer among the Japanese sample was “Seoul Olympics” (67.0%), followed by “Japan/South Korea World Cup” (63.0%), whereas South Korean side focused mostly on the events of World War II such as  “atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” and “forced annexation of Korea on the part of Japan”, preceded by “Japanese invasion of Korea by Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1592-98)”. In fact, the problem’s main core is not the historical justification of the Island’ belonging. What really matters to Koreans  is the sense of historical justice, which could be dwindled in case of a Japanese victory.

As showed by the research,  the Japanese approach to the dispute has different basis and has proved more pragmatic than the Korean’s. It’s not the past that determines the willingness of the possession, but future position of Japan in conflicts with Russia (over Kurils) and China (over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands). It’s worth to notice that Japan is standing between a tough choice: alliance with South Korea would be a solid reinforcement in an economic battle with the People’s Republic of China, not to mention constant problems with North Korea’s stable international policy. Yet, the “Land of the rising sun” is afraid of the growing importance of its Korean neighbor. In the eyes of the Japanese government, giving up the island may possibly weaken Japan’s  position in general, not only in particular conflicts.


Dokdo 080628
The Liancourt Rocks by 머찐만두 at Naver [CC BY-SA 2.0 kr, via Wikimedia Commons]
Lingering resentment still on track

At the beginning of April, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, and Technology (MEXT) revealed the results of its regular review of textbooks for middle school students. Since 1982, textbooks have been reflecting the governmental position on history and territorial issues. Changes performed by MEXT exposed more offensive way in pursuing foreign policy: it was stated that, in 2011, only 4 out of 18 total textbooks contained Tokyo’s claim that South Korea were illegally occupying the Liancourt Rocks, whereas in 2015 the number has jumped to 13. Another problem, which rub salt into the wound, appeared one day after textbook’s  flare-ups over the issue, when Japan claimed sovereignty over the island in a diplomatic document (“Diplomatic Bluebook”), ie an annual report on Japan’s Foreign Policy and Activities published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. Although South Korea was described  as “the most important neighboring country”, Tokyo’s sustained its claim over the Dokdo islets, causing ipso facto the lodging of a formal protest against it.

Truce-is it likely to happen?

At the time being, chances of an early resolution to the dispute look dimly. Key obstacles to the solution are closely related to lingering historical grievances between those two countries. Nevertheless, both Seoul and Tokyo are perfectly aware of the crucial role they have in maintaining peace and stability in the Eastern Asian region. Some sources believe that the so-called “2+2” security talks, which are scheduled to take place in Seoul next Tuesday, might offer a possibility to rise above all obstacles. With Beijing strengthening ties with Moscow and a very strained political situation in Europe and the Middle East, South Korea and Japan know they can’t afford a policy of holding grudges and continuous claims. However, building a platform of consensus in this dispute requires a deeper reflection, and security talks-scheduled despite simmering tensions-might be a somewhat promising beginning.