Dokdo (Takeshima)

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(CC) Image: Chunbum Park
Coordinates: 37° 14´ N, 131° 52´ E[1]

Dokdo is a small group of volcanic islands located in the East Sea (Sea of Japan). South Korea administers the islets as an area of the Ulleung County, Northern Gyeongsang Province. The 46-acre formation consists of two main islands that house a lighthouse, a radar station, a helicopter pad, and a small police force. Because Dokdo shelters a rich but delicate ecosystem, the South Korean government has designated the islets as a nature reserve and has provided environmental guidelines for the visiting tourists. The sovereignty over Dokdo has been contested by Japan on historical and legal grounds and remains one of the more serious disputes between South Korea and its former colonial ruler. Since at least 1905, the islands were called, in Japanese, Takeshima (竹島), meaning the "bamboo island". The Korean name has many different transliterations in English, including "Tok-do", "Dok-to", and "Tok Islets" (독도), all of which equate to "rocky island". The islets have two English titles: Liancourt Rocks and Hornet Rocks.[2] "Liancourt" has its origin in the name of the French whaling ship that first encountered and charted the islets in 1849.


(CC) Image: Chunbum Park
A detailed map of Dokdo.

Dokdo lies in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) as a part of an underwater volcano that erupted repeatedly[3] from 4.6 to 2.5 million years ago.[4] The underwater Dokdo volcano stands 2 km high from its base of 20 ~ 25 km diameter and rises to a guyot[5] summit that is 10 km wide.[6] The islets on top of this summit consist mostly of trachyte and trachyandesite differentiated from the parental alkali basalt magma of the underwater volcano.[7] Samples of these rocks reveal that Dokdo is the oldest existing island in Korea (Awaji Island is the oldest in Japan)[8]; Korea's second oldest island is Ulleungdo,[9] which formed 2 million years after Dokdo from the same hot spot, with similar igneous composition to Dokdo.[3] Due to sedimentation, the 2 islands (Seo-do and Dong-do in Korean, Otoko-jima and Onna-jima in Japanese; both literally meaning western island and eastern island, respectively)[10][11] that make up most of Dokdo separated 2 million years ago[3] and are now positioned 151 meters apart from each other.[12] The western islet is steeper and larger than the eastern islet, and it is also the tallest body in the island cluster.[13] 87 smaller rocks scatter around the two main islands within a radius of a few kilometers,[14] and more than 30 of such geographical features have been named by the South Korean government ministries.[15]

Climate & Ecology

Dokdo has a moderate maritime climate created by the warm[6] and cold ocean currents that come together near the islands.[1] The average year-round temperature is 12°C, and the coldest and the hottest extremes occur in January (1°C) and August (23°C) respectively. The average yearly rainfall is 1,240 mm, and in the winter the islands experience heavy snowfall. Rain and snow average 150 days a year, and just over 160 days are cloudy or foggy; hence, the number of clear days on Dokdo averages only 50 days annually.[16]

Dokdo's diverse ecosystem is influenced heavily by its climate and geography. Its central location in the Sea of Japan makes it a popular breeding area and rest stop for numerous species of birds. Among the numerous avian species found in Dokdo, the black-tailed gulls that are present between the months of May and August[17] comprise the largest population.[18] Dokdo is also home to a diverse marine life that is attracted to the area by the abundance of plankton. The waters around Dokdo can sustain a wide range of species including cod, seaweed, shrimp, shellfish, and flatfish due to the collision of the North Korean Cold Current and the Tsushima Warm Current around the islets.[19][20] The richness of the marine ecosystem was attested by the discovery of a coral colony near Dokdo in 2007, which was the first to be found in the Sea of Japan.[21]

Although many birds and fish find Dokdo to be a habitable environment, the case is not the same with plants. Strong, salty sea winds (with an average velocity of 4.3m/s)[16], barren soil, and the lack of fresh water are unfavorable to vegetation. Furthermore, Dokdo can undergo severe drought if there is a shortfall of rain or snow because the islets' thin soil cannot retain much water, and the water produced by the moss on Dokdo amounts to very little.[1]

(CC) Photo: VANK
Dokdo as seen from its south.

As much as Dokdo's ecosystem is healthy and diverse, it is equally delicate and vulnerable. A study in 2006 found that the 2 mammal species that were previously reported on Dokdo, the stellar sea lions and the fur seals, have completely disappeared from the islands.[18] The study also found in Dokdo, 8 of the species that are endangered in Korea,[22] including the red-footed falcon,[23] the Siberian honey buzzard, the owl, the black kite, the Japanese murrelet, and the swan. The researchers expressed concerns that the 19 alien plant species found during the study could be invasive species.[18] Currently, Dokdo is inhabited by 107 species of birds, 49 species of plants (of which 19 are alien species), and 93 species of insects;[22] and as many as 160 different species of seaweeds and 100 species of fish live in the surrounding waters.[1]

Environmental policies

The South Korean government implemented several policies concerning Dokdo's environment, which was distinguished as a natural monument in 1982.[24][21] Due to the issues with Japan, however, the overall policies have been an inconsistent balancing act between the environment and its sovereignty claims.

While the government prohibited visitors from setting foot on the islets without obtaining the necessary permits (until 2005), it also stationed a police unit there, whose presence has been a source of waste pollution for the nearby waters.[25] The ecosystem's health may have taken further toll from 2005 onwards when the governmen lifted the visitation ban to the eastern islet,[26][27] in response to the move by the governing council of the Shimane Prefecture in Japan to mark February 22nd as the Takeshima Day.[28] The government attempted to limit the exposure to the islets by allowing no more than 70 visitors per day, although the number was later expanded to 140 persons in the same month,[29][30] which the Ministry of Environment claimed would have zero compromise on Dokdo's environment. To the contrary, however, the government had to follow the guarantee with a plea to the visitors to abide by the rules that prohibit noise pollution (i.e. with musical instruments), straying off from tour routes, and taking rocks as souvenirs.[31]

With the changes, the Ministry of Environment began monitoring Dokdo for signs of negative developments in the same year.[32] In 2006, the monitoring activities around Dokdo were expanded to biannual surveys and 4-season studies that would be conducted every 5 years.[22]


In May of 1968, a South Korean fisherman named Chwe (or Choi) Jongdeok moved into Dokdo and became the first to reside on the islets.[33] Since then, Dokdo saw a continual presence of at least one or two fishing families, in addition to the coast guard (i.e. the police) that has been stationed there since 1954.[34][35] The only current residents of the islets are a fisherman and his wife, Kim Song-do and Kim Shin-yeol, who have lived there since 1991.[36][33]

Territorial dispute with Japan

PD Image
A Japanese map from 1785 that indicates Takeshima to be a Korean territory. Note that around this time the Japanese called Dokdo Matsushima and the neighboring island of Ulleungdo Matsushima or Takeshima.[37] Click here for another Japanese map that indicates both Dokdo and Ulleungdo to be Korean territories.

The following text focuses on the history of the dispute. See the debate guide for details on the cases made by Japan and South Korea based on historical evidences and the international law.

After World War II and the liberation of Korea from Japan, Dokdo arose as a major point of contention between Japan and South Korea. Japan has asserted that South Korea's occupation of Dokdo is illegal because Japan was the first to lay claim on the islets in 1905 when the islets were terra nullius (claimed by no one).[38] South Korea has responded with Korean sources that refer to the islets from as early as 512 A.D. and the Japanese records that acknowledge Dokdo's status as a Korean territory.[37]

In the wake of the dispute, the Japanese government and the media propagandized the Japanese case while reducing the Korean side into straw man arguments. As a result, the notion that "Takeshima is inherently a Japanese territory beyond all question" penetrated the Japanese consciousness for the first time during 1952 to 1954. The "illegal occupation" of Takeshima by South Korea fed into the Japanese public's anti-Korean sentiments, and the issue was used to push initiatives for Japanese rearmament. Although the Japanese people criticized their government for failing to adopt a more aggressive approach, Koreans did not take delight at the situation but rather viewed it repulsively as a case of corruption between the two countries.[37]

After World War II

In September 1945, a month after Japan's surrender in World War II, the Allied occupation forces placed Dokdo within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Sixth Army based in Japan. But, in less than a year, General MacArthur, who was then the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, created the MacArthur Line, which put Dokdo within the jurisdiction of the U.S. XXIV Corps responsible for all of South Korea.[39] Although some scholars speculate that the MacArthur Line indicates the Allies' acceptance of the Korean claim,[40] the boundary was actually drawn for convenience of the administrators.[41]

San Francisco Peace Treaty

The dispute between South Korea and Japan over the ownership of Dokdo ultimately originates from the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, which was a formal agreement to the end of the Pacific War and the return of national sovereignty to the occupied Japan.[42] The treaty in general did not specify to which country Japan renounced its former territories and to which precise limit these territories extended;[43] in the case of the Dokdo-Takeshima dispute, the main question regarding the peace treaty was whether the islands were included in the "Korea" that Japan renounced in the San Francisco treaty.[41]

In fact, in the earlier drafts of the treaty that were written between the late 1946 and November 1949, the US State Department specified that Japan return Dokdo to the Korean mainland. However, William J. Sebald, who was a political adviser to General MacArthur suggested in a commentary to the State Department that Dokdo be defined as a Japanese territory for historical and strategic reasons. First, Sebald thought that Japan's sovereignty over Dokdo appeared valid and that "it is difficult to regard... [ Dokdo ] as islands off the shore of Korea". Secondly, Sebald pointed out that, if Dokdo were to be a South Korean territory, the U.S. risked losing the islets as a potential station for weather and radar surveillance due to the communist threats from the North. Therefore, the December draft of the San Francisco treaty was changed to state that "Takeshima (Liancourt Rocks)... shall belong to Japan." (Chapter II, Territorial Clauses, Article 3) This shift in the U.S.'s position may have also been influenced by the Japanese Foreign Office, which in the early post-war years provided the U.S. government with several pamphlets about the Japanese territories.[44]

Then all of a sudden, after John Foster Dulles was put in charge of the peace treaty and the Korean War precipitated, the treaty drafts from August and onwards ceased to mention "Takeshima" (as the islets were referred to) altogether. The entire treaty became shorter and simpler, and many of the specifics on the coordinates, borders, and the islands disappeared. It is likely that Dulles purposefully rewrote the treaty to open room for disputes between Japan and the other countries, and thereby provide buffer against a potential domino effect in case of communist expansion. Dulles expected that, if South Korea were not to fall in the hands of the communists, it would take the disputes with Japan to the International Court of Justice, as suggested by the treaty in Chapter 6, Article 22.[45]

The San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed on September 8, 1951,[46] and it took effect on April 28, 1952.[47]

Proclamation of the Rhee Line

Before the Japanese government could regain national rule on April 28, 1952, the South Korean President Syngman Rhee issued on January 18 the "the Declaration of Maritime Sovereignty", which basically kept the "MacArthur Line" from expiring as a result of the peace treaty. The South Korean government realized that, without such an affirmative action on South Korea's part, Japan would eventually get the islets due to U.S.'s prioritizing Japan in its Cold War strategy; at the same time, South Korea believed that it could make a stronger case, based on historical evidences. [47]

Despite the Japanese government's protests, the "Syngman Rhee Line" was kept in place,[47] and the South Korean ships began seizing the Japanese fishing vessels that transgressed the line.[39] Instead of retaliating, Japan publicized the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty's designation of Dokdo as a training ground for the U.S. military and claimed that the U.S. recognized the islets as a Japanese territory by asking Japan rather than South Korea for permission over the islands. South Korea protested the deal, and therefore the U.S. Air Force excluded Dokdo from its training areas on February 27, 1953. In response, Japanese maritime police vessels began interrogating Korean fishermen around the areas of Dokdo and even engaged in exchanges of gunfire with the South Korean volunteer forces stationed on the islets.[48][37]

Such a time of intense hostility saw more civilian involvement in the dispute over Dokdo. During the month of May in 1954, South Korean and Japanese citizens, escorted by patrol boats from their respective countries, made multiple trips to Dokdo to erect signs of their ownership of the islets and knock down the works from the other country.[48][37]

Stationing of South Korea's police unit

At the height of confrontations in August 1954, South Korea occupied Dokdo, where a lighthouse was built and a permanent police garrison was stationed. With no other way to continue, in September 1954 Japan proposed to request a trial from the International Court of Justice, but South Korea refused, thereby putting the dispute in a deadlock. With neither side wanting to risk war over such tiny islands, the basic situation of the dispute today has remained essentially the same as that of 1954.[37]

Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and South Korea

The Dokdo-Takeshima dispute flared up again with the 1965 Japan-Korea Normalization Treaty, which established diplomatic relations between the two countries. Japan tried to have the treaty mandate the two countries to take the dispute to the ICJ, but, again, South Korea rejected. In the end, both sides agreed to disagree, the treaty was signed, and, thus, the Japanese government made a big compromise of allowing the dispute to remain deadlocked. A Japanese international law scholar commented regarding the Treaty, "frankly speaking, Japan has almost lost all hope of regaining... [ Dokdo ]."[37]

Although the conventional view is that the U.S. had largely kept out of the controversy, U.S. State Department documents that were declassified in 2004 revealed otherwise. With the aim to hasten the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two countries, the U.S. tried make South Korea, which had the upper hand in the dispute by controlling Dokdo, to accept compromise with Japanese demands. On August 9, 1963, the U.S. State Department directed the U.S. Embassy in Korea to press its host government to accept Japan's position that South Korea's fishing zone be limited to 12 miles (instead of 40 miles). The directive also authorized the embassy to inform the Korean officials that, in case South Korea failed to concur, the U.S. would not hesitate to denounce the "Syngman Rhee Line” as illegal. Also, on May 18, 1965, when the South Korean President Park Chung-hee was visiting Washington, the U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk proposed a compromise in which Japan and the Republic of Korea would both maintain a lighthouse on Dokdo. Secretary Rusk suggested that the joint occupation should allow the controversy to resolve without the need for either side to address the question of which country owned the islets, although the compromise was cordially dismissed by the Korean President anyways.[49]

Giving in to American pressure, South Korea established a 12-mile exclusive fishing zone around Dokdo, in addition to a 3-mile territorial waters. Japan also set up a 3-mile territorial waters and granted fishing rights in area of 500 m radius around the islets. The tacit understanding that arose among the local fishermen became so that the Japanese could fish outside of the 3 nm territorial waters and inside the 12-mile exclusive fishing zone. Since then, fishermen from both countries have been operating around Dokdo peacefully, and the 1999 Korea-Japan fisheries agreement continued the joint fishing around Dokdo by allowing fishing vessels from both countries to operate in each other’s 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zones with permits.[50][37]

Global discourses and propaganda

The international coverage of the dispute steadily increased from the early 1990s in print and on the web, peaking around 2005~2008. The Korean and Japanese governments proactively propagandized the issue in English, particularly through the internet, where there have been extensive discussions in the context of the larger issue of Japan-Korea relations. The most prominent clash among netizens took place at Wikipedia, where the title of the article on Dokdo was changed from "Dokdo" to "Liancourt Rocks" in May 2007. Similar cases with other services also attracted attention among the netizens, including Google Earth's description of the islets as "Liancourt Rocks," and Microsoft's preference for the Korean name in the Japanese user registration for the Xbox Live.

A major controversy arose in July 2008 when the U.S. Library of Congress considered changing the name used to refer to Dokdo from "Tok Island" to "Liancourt Rocks." The move was reflective of the recent designations of the islets as "undesignated sovereignty" by the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the Board on Geographic Names (BGN) of the U.S. Department of State. Suspicions abounded among the Koreans regarding the possibility of Japan's lobbying of the U.S. government, although the decision was in fact made by low-level technical officials. The controversy was resolved with the intervention of the Bush administration, which promptly ordered the NGA, BGN and the LOC to abandon the neutral designations.[51][52][53][54]

Controversies from Japan and the US generated much stronger activism by the Koreans in garnering outside support. Since 2005, several advertisements promoting the Korean point of view on the issue were put in prominent American newspapers such as the The Washington Post and The New York Times. In 2008 in New York City, where there is a large Korean population, about a hundred Korean-owned dry cleaners began using plastic bags carrying an advertisement about Dokdo. A year later, it was reported that a tour company in New York City used three of its buses to display nonprofit advertisements about Dokdo.[55][56]

A Korean international scholar, David C. Kang, at the USC noted, however, that the lack of activism on part of the Japanese constituted a form of "passive aggressi[on]," and the overt display of emotion and enthusiasm by the Koreans served to undermine their case on the issue:[57]

So the Korean mindset makes perfect sense: “Koreans really care about Dokdo; our claim is justified and the more resistance we face, the more emotional we become in order to convince you.” Yet, in American culture, it works in reverse. The more emotional a person becomes, the less he or she is perceived to be serious. The belief in the U.S. is that one needs to “calm down” and that only when the people are rational can we really make headway into solving the problems and issues.
I have been in meetings with sitting U.S., Korean, and Japanese officials, and watched an American official say “Koreans are emotional about this issue,” while the Koreans nod approvingly, thinking the Americans understand how important this is to Koreans. Yet the exact opposite message is sent! The message the American sent was: “You guys are crazy and we just try to avoid you;” not “your emotional claim means you are more serious than the Japanese.” To that end, shouts about politics at a baseball game serve to undermine, not enhance, Korea’s claim on Dokdo in international and, in particular, Western eyes.


(CC) Photo: Hun Lim
At the Meiji Jingu Temple in Shibuya, Tokyo, a Japanese ema (wooden block for writing prayers) reads at the bottom, "P.S. Dokdo is Korean land."

Today, the people of the two countries hold very different attitudes regarding the dispute. For Koreans, who are bitter at Japan for imposing oppressive rule from 1910 to 1945 and for whitewashing its militaristic past, the dispute has remained a matter of justice and truth. In contrast, many Japanese today are not aware of the dispute, and those who do know about it treat it as nothing more than a territorial issue.[58] Consequently, South Korea's refusal to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice remains a puzzle for the Japanese.

By way of response, South Korea has argued that it does not need international arbitration because Dokdo is inherently a Korean territory. Indeed, if South Korea agrees to bring the dispute before the ICJ, there is only the risk that South Korea will lose control of the islands if the court rules in Japan's favor. Analysts have pointed out that South Korea's case is superior to Japan's in terms of the historical evidences and by its de facto control of the islets, which is a greater manifestation of sovereignty under the international law. However, since the International Court of Justice has in the past prioritized the intent of the colonizer (i.e. the U.S. and its postwar occupation of Japan), it may side with Japan in a trial, based on the evidence that the United States planned to give the islets to Japan in some later drafts of the San Francisco Treaty.[59][37] Thus, the ultimate resolution is not entirely predictable, and so far South Korea has not found good reasons to risk its de facto control.

Analysts have speculated that the dispute over control of Dokdo will continue to figure prominently in Japan-South Korea relations in the future. This is partly because any attempt by a politician to disown the islets as a national territory risks a serious political backlash both in Korea and in Japan. Furthermore, although the economic value of the islands themselves may be small, their control is a determining factor in the designation of the official rights over fisheries and the potential reserves of natural gas in the East Sea (Sea of Japan). Nevertheless, the two countries have allowed room for compromise at times of crisis, and "neither country seems willing to break off relations over a minor territorial dispute."[50][59][58][42]


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