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Japan-South Korea Spat over Takeshima/Dokdo

Shamshad Ahmed Khan was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here to for detailed profile
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  • August 10, 2011

    As Japan grapples with pressing domestic issues a new challenge has emerged on the foreign policy front. This time, with South Korea over Takeshima (known as Dokdo in South Korea) - a dispute that has been going on for the past six decades. The territorial dispute with South Korea led to a diplomatic spat between the two countries as Seoul turned away three Japanese lawmakers from its Gimpo airport and thwarted their bid to visit Ullengdo - the administrative and military base for the South Korean controlled Dokdo islet. Seoul viewed the Japanese parliamentarians’ visit as a way of strengthening Japan’s claims over Dokdo.

    Japan has territorial disputes with almost all its major neighbours including Russia, South Korea and China. Japan’s territorial disputes with China1 and Russia 2 resurfaced within a year of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) assuming office. Most Japanese scholars believe that Russia and China were reasserting their territorial claims to test the “strength” of the new DPJ leadership. For its part, the DPJ could not respond to these challenges adequately because it was grappling with domestic issues as well as factional feuds within the party. When both Russia and China were testing the Japanese resolve over the disputed islands, South Korea remained quiet. Earlier, Japanese security experts explained this anomaly by referring to Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s open apology to South Korea in 2010, the centenary year of the Japanese military’s annexation of Korea. However, the recent tension over Takeshim/Dokdo has overturned that explanation.

    The dispute intensified in June 2011 when Korean Air operated a demonstration flight over the disputed territory and the Japanese foreign minister Takeaki Matsumoto terming the flight as “a violation of territorial airspace”. Japan’s foreign ministry also ordered Japanese civil servants not to use Korean Air for one month. Seoul protested the move terming it as a contravention of the global diplomatic protocol and WTO rules. The dispute intensified further when three opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers announced their decision to visit Ullengdo’s Dokdo Museum, which displays artifacts and material related to Takeshima, and gain background knowledge. But Seoul viewed this as a Japanese ploy to strengthen claims over Dokdo and slapped a ban on their entry into South Korea. But this measure did not deter the LDP lawmakers who arrived at Seoul’s Gimpo airport on August 1. South Korea then refused to allow them to leave the airport, which has become a diplomatic issue between the two countries.

    The dispute started in the 1950s when South Korea laid claim to the island. However, Japan claims that the island has been part of its Shimane prefecture since 1905. Takeshima has an area of just 0.08 square miles but sovereignty over it would allow Japan to gain control over 200 nautical miles of EEZ around it. Japan considers Takeshima to be a strategically important location since in the past as it had served as a temporary watchtower for Japan during the Russo-Japanese war and for the US during the Korean War. The debate over the sovereignty of the rocky outcrop has been heating up since 2006 when the Shimane prefecture started celebrating Takeshima day on February 22.

    The territorial dispute led to a near confrontation between the two neighbours in 2006 when Japan sent two of its ships for a maritime survey near the island. In response South Korea sent 18 vessels which led to media speculations about the emergence of a flashpoint between the two countries. The Japanese media has urged the two countries to take a “calm approach.” The Asahi Shimbun in its editorial suggested that the two countries should “exercise self-control, stop provoking each other and avoid getting deeper into a vicious cycle”, adding that “Tokyo and Seoul should also commit themselves to work together to create an environment in which they can discuss the territorial issue while keeping cool heads. Politicians of both nations have a duty to do their best to promote these efforts.” 3 The Yomiuri Shimbun criticised Seoul’s action of denying permission to the Japanese lawmakers, but also urged both countries to maintain calm. It further stated that “It is not easy to resolve a territorial dispute because it involves state sovereignty. There is no option but to seek points of agreement through cool-headed talks.” 4

    On the surface it appears that it was the test flight of Korean Air over the Takeshima Island which angered Tokyo. But tensions have been mounting ever since three South Korean parliamentarians visited Kunashiri - one of the four Russian held islands claimed by Japan - in May 2011 on Russian visas. Believing that this would strengthen Moscow’s claims of sovereignty, Japan urged Seoul to cancel the visit. But the South Korean parliamentarians did not, which angered many people in Japan. Their visit in turn appears to have been a response to the reference to Takeshima as Japanese territory in Japanese school text books screened by the ministry of education. Seoul followed this up with a series of steps to strengthen its claim over the island including expansion of its naval airbase on the island of Ulleung which is aimed at boosting the defence of nearby islands including Dokdo. The Japanese media, citing South Korean sources, has reported that South Korea aims to complete the expansion of its naval airbase in Ulleung by 2017, which will give it an effective edge over Tokyo to gain control of the disputed territory.

    How the territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan will pan out remains uncertain. But if allowed to linger further, it will affect their bilateral relations including the security cooperation they had envisaged early this year. Since Japan and South Korea have announced many times that they share the common goal of ensuring peace and stability in the region, the escalation of territorial dispute between the two neighbours will have wider implications for the security situation in the region.