Japan and South Korea are allies. That means they are constrained from going to war with one another. Despite a long history of conflict — including Japan’s colonization of Koreaduring the first half of the 20th century–the two countries have had to make nice as part of their anti-communist alliance with the United States. For the better part of the Cold War, the two countries suppressed, or were forced to suppress, their mutual antagonisms.
This anger and resentment — Japan’s insufficient apologies, Korea’s insufficient gratitude for economic assistance — have simply found different expression. The most prominent object of these displaced sentiments is a set of disputed islands called Dokdo by the Koreans and Takeshima by the Japanese. Located in the waters between the two countries, the two rocks are tiny, only about 56 acres. They don’t contain much in the way of valuable resources. They can’t support any habitation, though a South Korean couple lives there and relies on goods shipped in by the ferries that bring in thousands of South Korean tourists. South Korea has occupied the islands for decades, but Japan still claims them.
The countries have waged a virtual war for this territory. They have battled with one another over maritime boundaries, map designations, postage stamps, and textbook descriptions. Activists from both sides have conducted cyberattacks against one another’s websites. In 2004, a more serious conflict was averted at the last moment when the Japanese government stopped four nationalists halfway into their naval mission to plant the Japanese flag on the islands.
The United States has played an unfortunate role in this tempest in a teacup. Although Korean claims to the islands go back several centuries, Japan definitely annexed Dokdo/Takeshima when it colonized Korea in 1910. But whether the islands returned to Korea after World War II is not entirely clear. In the San Francisco Treaty that spelled out the disposition of Japan’s territory after the end of World War II, the United States did not explicitly include Dokdo as one of the many islands Japan returned to Korea.
This lack of clarity, as Japanese historian Kimie Hara convincingly demonstrates, was deliberate. The islands were included in early drafts as clearly Korean. But then the Korean War broke out. And the final draft of the treaty in 1951 left out Dokdo/Takeshima. The U.S. fear of North Korea unifying the peninsula by force, and thus taking control of the strategically important islands, dictated this change in language. That the United States was already using the islands as a bombing range no doubt contributed to this decision as well. While this ambiguity has proven exasperating to later generations of diplomats and historians, it served its purpose at the time. The United States retained a certain flexibility in determining the control of this key area.
The islands are not important so much because of fishing rights or the prospect of oil and deposits near its shores. Rather, the passions unleashed by this dispute point to the importance of sovereignty and how it has been distorted by the geopolitics of the 20th century. The division of the Korean peninsula, Japan’s Peace Constitution, the U.S. military presence in South Korea and Japan: the countries never regained full sovereign control. The energies devoted to reclaiming Dokdo/Takeshima express an underlying desire to exercise undiminished sovereignty in general. In North Korea, of course, this desire expresses itself differently: launching rockets, conducting nuclear tests, seizing journalists that violate borders, developing a governing ideology of self-reliance.
Both South Korea and Japan are also beginning to develop their own ideologies of self-reliance. Japan is pushing at the edges of the Peace Constitution: acquiring new, sophisticated military hardware, engaging in overseas missions against pirates, and transforming its military doctrine from defensive to offensive. South Korea is spending a great deal more money on its military in the anticipation that the United States will not always have troops, ships, and aircraft at the ready. These trends make the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute potentially more dangerous.
It is certainly possible to imagine South Korea and Japan working out some form of bilateral compromise: Japan relinquishing its claims to Dokdo if South Korea suppresses its opposition to the Sea of Japan designation. The two countries could work out the maritime boundaries and jointly explore for oil and gas.
But such a bilateral deal would not get at the Cold War structures and ideologies still in place in Northeast Asia. South Korea is worried about Japan’s new military and foreign policy. Japan is worried about China’s military spending. Everyone is concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program. And U.S. military presence still encounters significant resistance in parts of the region. Tokdo/Takeshima is part of a larger group of security concerns.
Resolving the islands issue will ultimately require a multilateral deal that addresses the vestiges of the Cold War in the region. Europe — along with the Soviet Union and the United States — was able to resolve its final territorial issues from World War II with a package deal that established a regional peace and security structure (the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe). The Dokdo/Takeshima issue will ultimately need a similar structure in Asia. After all, the conflicts between South Korea and Japan will persist until and unless a structure is in place that permits the ongoing resolution of security disagreements and the ongoing reduction of tensions and armaments in the region.
Absent such a regional structure, relations between South Korea and Japan will continue to be on the rocks.