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Dokdo/Debate Guide

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(PD) Image: Chunbum Park
A pro-Japanese sock puppet (Sharodin95) in Wikipedia plays the ignorant and overly nationalistic Korean "POV." The admin refuses to recognize Sharodin95 as a foiled attempt at mimicry of KPOV.

The territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan over Dokdo is an issue that can be easily misunderstood without an extensive survey of the arguments presented in academic setting. For someone who is new to the dispute, understanding the Dokdo-Takeshima dispute is made trickier by the fact that his or her primary source of information and dialogue on the dispute would be the internet. Because the news outlets outside of Korea and Japan are primarily interested in the new developments in the dispute, they avoid addressing the issue of historical correctness while providing only the general facts. Without editorializing by the official sources, the layman can only speculate that both parties involved have equal footing, or, even worse, that the side with weaker claims has aggressively escalated and prolonged the dispute (i.e. by taking control of the disputed territory).

With limited knowledge, evaluating the dispute then largely rests on the imagery of the two countries and the opinions of other netizens, who are usually biased towards Japan and may have corresponding anti-Korean sentiments. This is mainly due to the fact that Japan is a technological and cultural powerhouse, with a large fan base around the world that is very active in online communities. Some pro-Japanese netizens tend to engage in what is loosely termed as "Korea-bashing," while defending Japan from antagonistic relations with Korea that is well rooted in Japan's militaristic past. In the discourse of -bashing, the images of North Korea are conjured up to depict (South) Koreans as unreasonable, aggressive, yet immature and weak, and the Japanese, as reasonable, passive, and culturally superior, which is reminiscent of the western construct of the totalitarian portrait of the Orient during the colonial era. The territorial dispute becomes another instance in which the pro-Japanese must defend Japan's claims while assuming the identity of the Japanese nation in person. The smaller opposing camp that claims the side of historical justice plays well into the role of the irrational, isolated, and overly emotional Koreans, while enabling the pro-Japanese trolls to attack in a legalistic and cool-headed manner.

A very relevant example of such clash involving the Dokdo-Takeshima controversy would be the naming disputes at Wikipedia from 2004 to 2008. A combination of favoritism by admins and well-played out sock-puppetry (or the attempt to manipulate discussions by assuming multiple personalities)[1] led to a situation in which the article on "Liancourt Rocks" is permanently locked from editing, and its contents as well as the title have been declared as the "consensus." But the "consensus" was arbitrarily defined based on the results of a poll that was only cleared of pro-Korean sock puppets in a last-minute search. And, more importantly, the consensus cannot be tested nor a shift in consensus be observed if "naming lameness" and "blatant POV" are "strictly forbidden."

With regard to Wikipedia's policy of Neutral Point of View, "Liancourt Rocks" as a title is unacceptable because it deliberately denies the de facto sovereignty of a country over the territory by its neutral naming. The article instead imposes a description of its own choice (neither South Koreans nor Japanese call the islets "Liancourt Rocks"), thereby prescribing a position that the status quo is genuinely disputable. This is a problem of the policy in general because not all issues are disputable, and the very act of disputing does not somehow make equal all sides of a dispute. The neutral naming perpetuates passive aggression on part of the Japanese side by suggesting that South Korea would be "illegally" occupying the islets, since its territorial rights are under question, but not Japan's act of disputing. It should be noted that Wikipedia's NPOV and the media's neutrality are distinctly different, since the latter usually does not designate a neutral third alternative to the "Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese." In that sense, Wikipedia's Neutral Point of View is ironically a point of view, unlike neutrality of the media, but the layman is unable to distinguish between them. Upon exposure, the layman believes Wikipedia's neutral designation and its underlying implications to be the conventional understanding of the dispute.

Unlike the layman or a journalist, an academic involved in the dispute is able to determine which side has a valid case by rigorously examining the intricacies of the arguments and their supporting evidence. Thus, there is a huge perception gap regarding the dispute between the concerned scholarly experts and the journalists as well as their layman readership. Within the academic realm, the Dokdo-Takeshima dispute is mostly considered a concluded matter that will have absolutely zero impact on the Korean sovereignty over Dokdo for an indefinite period of time. The academic consensus is that South Korea has much stronger claims both historically and under the international law, and Japan will not risk war to challenge the occupation in the status quo. The real priorities of South Korea and Japan may currently lie in forging a new military and economic alliance to counterbalance the rise of China, and various movements seen on both sides of the aisle after the North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong Island were indicative of such intentions. Despite these circumstances, Japan will most likely continue to protest South Korea's control of Dokdo because disowning the islets carry a serious risk of political backlash from the Japanese Hard Right.

The Dokdo-Takeshima dispute can be divided into two main sets of arguments, which concern the issue of historical ownership and the international law. The international law provides the framework for evaluating the competing claims of sovereignty over Dokdo by Korea and Japan since 1905, when Japan issued Shimane Prefecture Notice No. 40 that incorporated Dokdo as part of Japanese territory under the premise of terra nullius. Historical evidence dating back hundreds of years may provide moral weight to the case, but it does not insure against a greater manifestation of sovereignty by another state in an international trial.

Historical ownership

The question of which country Dokdo was historically a part of concerns the issue of popular awareness and economic ownership of the islets, as well as the official position on the islets' territorial status. The relevant evidence may include maps and written records that either assert or concede state sovereignty over the islets, as well as photographs and mathematical proofs that determine visibility and accessibility of the islets to a nearby populace.

Historical ownership can be a complicated matter because the islets were neither easily inhabitable nor within convenient reach of the mainlands in the pre-modern period. The earliest mentions of the islets come from Korean sources, but they require a bit of creativity to appreciate due to their ambiguous and conflicting nature. Much of the ambiguity arises due to the fact that Dokdo and the adjacent island of Ulleungdo were called by different names throughout history, and their names were sometimes used interchangeably, as there was a considerable degree of confusion in the mainland regarding the relative size and location of Dokdo to Ulleungdo. Because of this, some Korean sources speculated that the equivalent names of Dokdo and Ulleungdo in fact refer to the same island (i.e. Ulleungdo), which gave rise to the one island theory that is mainly advocated by the pro-Japanese scholars.

Korean sources, 11th to 16th century

Samguk Sagi,[2] which was compiled in 1145 CE and details the conquest of "Usan-guk"[3] by Silla in 512 CE, is generally cited as the first historical record to mention Dokdo. Although Samguk Sagi notes that "Usan-guk... is also called Ulleungdo," and a direct reference to Dokdo is absent, some later literature suggest that "Usan-guk" in fact refers to the state entity consisting of two island bodies, and "Ulleungdo" to the bigger island. An entry in the Sejoing Sillok,[4] which was published during the Joseon Dynasty in 1454 CE, states that the islands of Usan and Mulleung that are within a visible radius of each other on a clear day "were called 'Usan-guk' [during the Silla dynasty]. Another name is 'Ulleungdo'."

According to Goryeosa,[5] which was compiled between 1392 and 1451, Usan-guk shifted its allegiance to Goryeo in 930 CE, thereby staying within the orbit of the Korean mainland when Goryeo defeated Silla in 935 CE. But during the 11th and 12th centuries, Usan-guk became desolate as it was hit by repeated pirate attacks from Manchuria, and later resettlement efforts failed due to the difficulty in the waters. During the Joseon Dynasty, the abandonment was enforced as an official policy (from 1416 to 1881) to deny safe haven for tax evaders and possible attacks by the Japanese pirates,[6] which has been brought up as the main explanation for the subsequent confusion regarding Dokdo's naming and location. As the local geographic knowledge dried up, "Usan," which would appear to refer to Ulleungdo as a shorter form of "Usan-guk," acquired dual meanings that are counter intuitive. On the one hand, "Usan" or "Usan-do" meant the general area of Dokdo and Ulleungdo, but it could also be an individual reference to Dokdo, and "Mulleung," to Ulleungdo, when stated in the same context. For example, in the Taejo Sillok,[7] which was compiled and edited from 1409 to 1451, the "Constable for Mulleung and nearby places"[8] was described to have come from "Usando," and, in the Sejong Sillok, the position was renamed to include "Usan" in its jurisdiction. While the pro-Japanese position speculates that "Usan" could refer to the island of Jukdo which is adjacent to Ulleungdo, that is unlikely because the Koreans were prone to suspect Dokdo to be a habitable island that is similarly sized to Ulleungdo, whereas Jukdo was identified in the same text as "a small island nearby [ Ulleungdo ]."

(CC) Diagram: Chunbum Park
A possible way of interpreting Kim Jaju's description of "Sambongdo" in 1476: 1. "three rocks" 2. "small island" 3. "medium-sized rock 4. "middle island" 5. "another small island"

The remote and ambiguous nature of the islets to the mainland Koreans during the period was attested by the fact that, when a rumor spread of people hiding in a remote island (possibly to evade taxes), they were described as "Sambongdo," or the islets with three peaks.[9] Unaware that "Usan" and "Sambongdo" were the same island, the capital court decided to locate the island and commissioned investigators (temporary government positions on fact finding mission) as well as involving the provincial officials. After numerous attempts over the years, one expedition in 1476 claimed to have found the islets with the following account dated 27th of October in the Seongjong Sillok:[10]

".. On the 25th of September, we (Kim Jaju,[11] Song Yeong-ro,[11] and 10 others) anchored where the islets could be seen 3 km to the west. At the northern end, three rocks stood apart from each other, and there were also the small island, a medium-sized rock, and the middle island. To the west of the middle island was another small island, and the sea water passes between them. We also spotted 30 doll-like objects which stood amidst the features, but we did not approach them out of fear and drew the shapes of the islets instead."[12]

The human-shaped figures may well have been the sea lions that were found on Dokdo before they were exterminated by overfishing. Or, as Kim was quoted in an earlier entry, they might have been people who were seen "standing at the entrance ... with smoke arising (from fire)... wore white clothes... [ and ] were mostly Koreans." Taking these statements into account, some have been conjectured that the island visited in 1476 was actually Ulleungdo because Dokdo was unlikely to have been habitable, let alone sustain a population of 30 (as fresh water would have been poisoned by sea lion excrement), and Ulleungdo was later attributed with having three peaks in the official records. But Kim's description of "Sambongdo" is consistent with the features on Dokdo, which is the only group of islets in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) with water passages that is small enough to be surveyed in whole from a distance of 3 km. With regard to these discrepancies, it has been suggested that the "record by Kim Jaju saying that 'the doll-like objects looked like Koreans clad in white clothes' could be an embellishment to match the expectations of the Korean government."[6] Indeed, when the government gave up the search to find the people in hiding, it conveniently unified the theory that "Sambongdo" and Ulleungdo were the same island into an official view and pat itself on the back with a "mission accomplished." While the pro-Japanese position hammers on this point by citing a multitude of records that incorrectly attribute Ulleungdo with "three peaks," the pro-Korean side usually responds by posing the question: then why was the report of an island "in the East Sea, separate from Ulleungdo" made in the first place? It would be somewhat high-handed to deny the possibility of an initial awareness of Dokdo that triggered the official investigations, regardless of their failure or success.[6]

In 1531, the Korean government published the Sinjeungdongguk-yeojiseung-ram,[13] which was built upon a previous work and included a 1530 map. The map, which depicts "Usando" to the west of Ulleungdo and set the example for the subsequent old maps in Korea, is a main evidence for the Japanese claim that "Usando" is similarly shaped and refers to Jukdo.

PD Map
"The Complete Map of Eight Provinces" of Korea, drawn in the year 1530, is generally cited as the first appearance of Dokdo on a map. Ulleungdo is marked as "鬱陵島," and Dokdo, "于山島" (Usando).

Japanese sources

On the other hand, several sources cited by the Japanese position to support their case were in fact found to in line with the Korean claims upon further examination.

International law



  1. Note: As seen in the snapshot, the pro-Japanese users in Wikipedia have made concerted efforts to construct the excessive display of pro-Korean bias through the use of sock-puppetry. Surprisingly, while building a portfolio of moderate participants, they also invested in disruptive pro-Japanese personalities, which would serve as a litmus test of bias for the pro-Korean side. The distinction was made between the nonaligned and pro-Japanese sock puppets, thereby placing the pro-Korean users at the other end of the spectrum. Because only those sock puppets that advocated for "Takeshima" were aggressive, and they elicited equally aggressive responses from the pro-Korean side, the net result was the framing of their other sock puppets as less biased as per behavioral evidence. The listing of the "Liancourt Rocks naming dispute" as one of Wikipedia's "lamest edit wars" can be attributed to the intended escalation of the dispute through the use of sock-puppetry. It is impossible to see Wikipedia's case in a benign light, however, given that the article contained elements of definitively pro-Japanese bias that were enforced by the admins upon being challenged. Such instances during the heat of the dispute included the loose interpretation of Japan's "administering" the islets on paper as a form of administrative control and the consequent placing of the Japanese flag above the South Korean flag as per "alphabetical order." The article as of September 26, 2010 explicates "Dokdo" in Chinese characters to mean "solitary island," while withholding the more dominant perspective, which would be the "rocky island." As explained below, "solitary island" is more convenient for the Japanese position.
  2. Note: 삼국사기:三國史記 (Hangul/Hanja); meaning "History of Three Kingdoms"
  3. Note: 우산국:于山國 (Hangul/Hanja)
  4. Note: 세종장헌대왕실록:世宗莊憲大王實錄 (Hangul/Hanja); meaning "the Annals of King Sejong"
  5. Note: 고려사:高麗史 (Hangul/Hanja); meaning "the History of Goryeo"
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Kajimura, Hideki. 1978.
  7. Note: 태조강헌대왕실록:太祖康獻大王實錄 (Hangul/Hanja); meaning "the Annals of King Taejong"
  8. Note: 무릉등처안무사:武陵等處安撫使 (Hangul/Hanja)
  9. Note: 삼봉도:三峰島 (Hangul/Hanja)
  10. Note: 성종강정대왕실록:成宗康靖大王實錄 (Hangul/Hanja)
  11. 11.0 11.1 Note: 김자주:金自周 (Hangul/Hanja)
  12. 59. 병조에서 삼봉도 수색을 위해 명년에 문무 재능자를 뽑아 보내자고 건의하다. Digital image. Dokdo Research Institute. Northeast Asian History Foundation. Web. 24 Oct. 2010. <>.
  13. Note: 신증동국여지승람:新增東國輿地勝覽 (Hangul/Hanja); meaning "Revised and Augmented Survey of the Geography of Korea"

Korea claims territorial sovereignty over Dokdo based on historical control of Dokdo beginning with the conquest of Ulleungdo by Shilla in 512 A.D. and subsequent de facto control based on visibility from Ulleungdo, which is the nearest historically inhabited Korean island from Dokdo. Japan claims territorial sovereignty based on activities including fishing and felling of bamboo groves at Dokdo from mid-17th century on. Korea claims that prohibition of seafaring to this area since 1696 by the Japanese government applied only to Ulleungdo, while Korea maintains that the ban applied Ulleungdo and appurtenant islands including Dokdo. Many maps, both Korean and Japanese, before 1905 show Dokdo as a Korea territory. On January 28, 1905 during the Russo-Japanese war, . The Korean government was not notified until March 29, 1906, well after Japan defeated Russia and concluded, on November 17, 1905, the Eulsa treaty that made Korea a protectorate of Japan amd prevented Korea from lodging any protest against the Japanese action over Dokdo.