Seemingly, Japan and Korea “Find Quarrel in a Straw?” … but its what lies beneath the Rocky Outcrops that counts

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

Not to be outdone by the strident diplomatic goings-on in the South China Sea, some of the groups of islands off the Northeast Asian coast have in recent years generated their own share of heat and controversy. The better known of the northern island disputes involve the Kuril Island group in the Sea of Okhotsk – diplomatically fought over for decades by Russia/USSR on one side and Japan on the other.

Some rocks between a rock & a hard place!
Some rocks between a rock & a hard place!
The other North Asian island dispute that I am going to focus on in this post has a lower media profile than the Kurils stand-off but has nonetheless contributed to a rise in tensions in the Sea of Japan between Korea and Japan❈. The highly contested islands are a miserable looking prize, two principal islets♰ plus 30 smaller slabs of rock emerging out of the sea (an even less prepossessing sight that the disputed Senkaku Islands further south). As with the Senkakus the rocky outcrops have been known by several different names depending on who was doing the naming. The neutral name is the Liancourt Rocks回, named after the French whaler which was almost wrecked around the rocks in 1849. The Japanese name is Takeshima (meaning “Bamboo Islands”). The Koreans call it Tok-do or Dok-do (meaning “Solitary Islands”). To complicate the matter the disputants have ascribed various other names to the islands at different periods, eg, Matsushima, Yankodo, Usan-do, Juk-do, Sok-do, etc, which have further obscured the question of ownership. On occasions the neighbouring island of Ulleung-do has been mistaked (innocently or otherwise) for Dok-do/Matsushima, and some historic charts show Ulleung-do to the east of Dok-do (which it isn’t!)[1].

The antecedents of the dispute over the islands appear to reside in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Under the Japan-Korea protocol in force then, Japan was green-lighted to occupy the islets for the duration of the war on the condition that it vacated them post-bellum, terms which Japan violated in 1905 by incorporating them into its nearby Shimane prefecture (without publicly announcing it had done so!), a prelude to Japan’s full annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910. Japan retrospectively used the Terra Nullius argument as justification for its seizure of the geo-strategic Liancourt Rocks.

Under the Western-imposed terms of the peace treaty (the 1951 San Francisco Treaty), Japan forfeited all possessions it had taken by force. After South Korea (ROC) retook Dok-do/Tok-do in 1954, Tokyo protested, arguing that as the disputed islands were not mentioned by name in the Treaty, it did not apply to them and therefore Japan should retain them (the SFT was a poorly draughted document in this respect)[3]. Since Korea’s reoccupation it has maintained a coast guard outpost on the islets (lighthouse, docking facilities added in the late 1990s), however they have remained almost entirely unoccupied[4].

Japan responded by referring the issue to the International Court of Justice. This tactical move was in vain though, because the rules of international law require both parties to agree to the dispute being heard at the ICJ before it can proceed. Korea, already in possession of the islets, naturally showed no interest in going this route … ROC’s position has remained steadfastly that Dok-do/Tok-do is “irrefutably (South) Korean”. Moreover, as Dong-Joon Park and Danielle Chubb argue, there is a powerful emotional dimension to the issue for Koreans, one that triggers their sense of “national identity”. Dok-do has symbolic significance as a sombre reminder of Koreans’ shameful experience of annexation by Japan[5].

Annals of Joseon Dynasty
Annals of Joseon Dynasty
Around 1962 Japan’s case shifted more from the Terra Nullius view to one emphasising Takeshima as an “inherent and ancient territory” of Japan. Both sides in fact have resorted to “proof” in the shape of old maps and documents purporting to support each country’s claim. Ancient texts and maps, such as Samguk Sagi (‘History of Three Kingdoms’), the Paldo Chongdo (‘Map of the Eight Provinces’) and the ‘Map of Three Adjoining Countries’ (Sangoku Tsūran Zusetsu), have been dredged up to advance the case of one side or the other. These pieces of “evidence” have tended to be characterised by ambiguities over names, inaccuracies in island locations on early maps, etc, making them problematic and in most cases not particularly helpful in resolving the issue[6].

North Korea’s view of the Dok-do/Takeshima dispute
North Korea (DRK) in 2011 affirmed that the Tok Islets (Pyongyang’s name for Dok-do) is an “inalienable part of the territory of Korea”[7]. But the matter is a diplomatically tricky one for North Korea given that it does not recognise the government of South Korea … despite the depth of its feelings on the issue it does not want to be seen supporting a position taken by its ideological enemies in Seoul. Accordingly it has tended to be fairly cautious to the extent that it has bought into the dispute.

United States’ position on the islets’ dispute
In the late 1940s and again after the outbreak of the Korean War the US military used the Liancourt Islands for bombing practice. From the ratification of the Treaty to San Francisco to after ROK recaptured Dok-do, key figures in the US administration such as John Foster Dulles and Dean Rusk privately concurred with Japan that it had a right to the islets, saying off-the-record that President Syngman Rhee‘s unilateral takeover was an illegal move. Publicly though, the US refused to back the Japanese claim (wanting to avoid getting offside with its new ally ROK)[8]. A policy of strict neutrality on the question of Dok-do V Takeshima continues to be practiced by the current US (Obama) administration.

Economic value of the islets
The two countries contesting Liancourt Rocks have traditionally harvested the area’s rich fishing grounds of squid, crab and mackerel (yielding an estimated 13m tons of fish per year[9]). As well as this there is the attraction of potential gas and oil under its waters. In the early 2000s large hydrocarbon deposits were discovered around the islets. Korea and Australia launched a joint, highly capitalised gas and oil exploration project in the immediate vicinity[10]. Korea and Japan’s demand for new energy resources feeds into the push for control of Dok-do/Takeshima (especially for Japan with its reliance on imported oil).

Japan and ROK’s fundamental disagreement about ownership of the Liancourt Rocks hasn’t shutdown the possibility of cooperation between the two countries in the vital Sea of Japan/East Sea. Back as far as 1965 South Korea and Japan were able to negotiate a Treaty of Basic Relations which sought to normalise their diplomatic relations. The Treaty granted Japan access to the Sea’s fishing grounds and quotas were set on the fish caught by each (provisional zones were introduced in 1998). In 2002 the two countries were again able to reach an agreement on reducing catch quotas to avoid depleting the fish stocks of the Sea[11].

imageAs part of the claim by both sides to be the rightful owner of Liancourt Rocks each have stressed their historic fishing ties to it. Japan traces its fishing connection to 1661 (Korea even earlier), and cites the on-going activities on Takeshima by Japanese fishermen, circa 1900-1935, eg, hunting sea lions (granted licences to do so by the government in Tokyo), gathering seaweed and abalone, to support its case[12]. ROK counters, referencing evidence from Japanese sources (the “Chosun (Korean) Fishing Manuals” written by the Black Dragons, a Shimane-based nationalist organisation). This Japanese guidebook states that Yankodo (Dok-do) was clearly Chosun or Joseon (Korean) territory before the Japanese annexation[13].

The South Korean claim on the Liancourt Rocks rests on several planks. ROK’s continuous physical control of the small island group (62 years to date), whilst not definitive per se, is a strong card in Seoul’s hand. Another plank is the contiguity/closest proximity argument. The disputed islets are closer to recognised sovereign territory of Korea than they are to the nearest recognised sovereign territory … the Liancourts are 157km from Japan’s Oki Islands but only 87.4km from the closest part of South Korea, the island of Ulleung-do. Further strengthening this fact is that Korean scholars have long considered Dok-do to an appendage or “little sister” of the larger Ulleung-do island[14]. That Dok-do can be seen “from Ulleung-do on a clear autumn day, reinforces the linkage”[15].

Jon M Van Dyke, an American international law expert, has argued that the superiority of ROK’s claims to the disputed islands over those of Japan, are such that if Seoul were to agree to take the matter to the ICJ (a path Tokyo has sought for the last 60-plus years!), the Court would almost certainly, based on other historical decisions handed down on international territorial disputes, decide in ROK’s favour. This of course is a big ‘if’ as South Korea has hitherto shown not the slightest sign of willingness to contemplate going this route, and would view this probably as an unnecessary risk. Seoul’s view has unwaveringly been that the dispute is a political one, not a legal one[16].

Van Dyke has pinpointed several weaknesses in Japan’s claim on the disputed territory vis-vís ROK’s. In contrast to Korea’s current possession of Dok-do/Takeshima, Japan’s long period of control of the islets (1905-45) does not advance its current claim – being tainted because it was “wrongful occupation”, illegitimately achieved by force. Van Dyke also notes that Japan has not pressed the question of the viability of its sovereignty prior to 1905, which perhaps could be viewed as an implicit admission by Tokyo of the weaknesses of its pre-20th century claims[17].

Van Dyke further discounts the Japan contention based on the grounds of Terra Nullius. For purposes of tax collection and security Korea at one point implemented a “vacant islands policy” in respect of Dok-do but this was revoked in 1881 and the islets’ population built up again to at least 1,000 by 1890[18]. Van Dyke makes the point that Korea’s minimal occupancy of the islets in the period before and after Japan’s subjugation of Korea is sufficient to establish a valid controlling presence on the part of Korea[19].

Like many of the long-standing island disputes in the region, Takeshima versus Dok-do is a stalemate with no obvious signs of a way forward as long as both sides maintain an entrenched, even intransigent viewpoint. As noted above, Japan and South Korea, fortunately, value their close bilateral relationship which hopefully will ensure that the dispute never escalates to a dangerous level (so far the fall-out has been restricted to a few minor incidents between coast guard vessels and fishing boats)[20]. The status quo suits South Korea as the territorial possessor … Japan, given it has the weaker hand, is unlikely to press the matter beyond a continuation of the symbolic show of discontent, a periodical “drum-beating” of the issue.


❈ Japan-Korea disputation in this stretch of water is rife, being restricted not just to the Liancourt islands themselves – the very name of the sea is a source of disagreement … Japan calls the body of water the “Sea of Japan” (no surprise!), both Koreas conversely call it Donghae (the “East Sea”)
♰ the east islet is known as Dongdu (Korean name) or Higashijima (Japanese name) and the west islet is called Seodu (Korean) or Nishijima (Japanese)
回 a less common name for the islets is the “Hornet Islands”. The coordinates of the Liancourt islets are 131˚52’22″N 37˚14’24″E

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[1] ‘Liancourt Rocks dispute’, Wikipedia,; ‘A Visual Study of Dokdo and Ancient Territorial Perceptions’, (“Historical Facts about Korea’s Dokdo Islands), www
[2] Japan dispute that this included Takeshima/Dok-do, Justin McCurry, ‘Rocky relations between Japan and South Korea over disputed islands’, The Guardian, (London), 18-Jul 2010
[3] interestingly, the British proposal (suggested to it by NZ), that Japan’s territory and sovereign waters be determined by latitude and longitude, may have resolved the issue at that time, ‘The United States’ Involvement with Dokdo Iskand (Liancourt Rocks): A Timeline of the Occupation and Korean War Era’, (Mark S Lovmo, 2004),
[4] Korea maintains two families on the islets year round with seasonal stays by fishermen from the mainland, ‘A Visual Study of Dokdo and Ancient Territorial Perceptions’, (Historical Facts about Korea’s Dokdo Islands),; ‘Liancourt Islands/Takeshima/Tokdo’, Global Security,
[5] D-J Park & D Chubb, ‘Why Dokdo Matters to Korea’, The Diplomat, (17-Aug 2011,; ‘Liancourt Rocks dispute’, op.cit.
[6] ibid.
[7] ‘N. Korea denounces Japan’s vow to visit island near Dokdo’, Yonhap News Agency, 30-Jul 2011,
[8] Lovmo, op.cit.
[9] Sean Fern, ‘Tokdo or Takeshima? The International Law of Territorial Acquisition in the Japan-Korea International Dispute’, SJEAA, 5(1), Winter 2005
[10] ‘Liancourt Islands/Takeshima/Tokdo’, op.cit.
[11] significantly though, the 1965 Treaty did not mention the disputed islets, Fern, op.cit.
[12] ‘Takeshima: Japan’s Territory’, (Takeshima Information Leaflet),
[13] ‘A Visual Study of Dokdo’, op.cit.
[14] moreover, even in the pre-motorised era of vessels, Dok-do was within two days sailing distance of the Korean mainland, ibid.
[15] Jon M Van Dyke, ‘Legal Issues Relating to Sovereignty over Dokdo and its Maritime Boundary’, Ocean Development and International Law, 38 (2007), www.jonvandyke-doc.pdf
[16] were the matter to go before The Hague, vital errors in judgement made by Japan would hamper its bid for ownership, eg, its failure to raise the islands dispute in the 1960s negotiations over the Basic Relations Treaty was a serious omission on Japan’s part, strategically it needed to keep the issue in the international spotlight. In the event of a resolution a likely outcome would see the maritime boundary drawn equidistance between Ulleung-do and the Oki Islands, as such confirming that Liancourt Rocks falls within the South Korean sphere, ibid
[17] indeed, from Japanese sources alone, significant parts of the early evidence appear to contradict the Japanese viewpoint, eg, maps drawn by Japanese cartographers seem to concede the point that Dok-do belongs to Korea. In a similar vein, the 1877 decree by the Daijō-kan (the Japanese Great Council) stating that Liancourt Rocks are not part of Japan, is a persuasive factor in weakening Japanese claims, ibid
[18] Kiran Kim, ‘Dokdo or Takeshima?’ CLA Journal, 2 (2014),
[19] especially when one takes into consideration how remote, difficult to access and basically ‘uninhabitable’ Dok-do/Takeshima is, Van Dyke, op.cit.
[20] Fern, op.cit.