The Takeshima/Dokdo group of islets have been a flashpoint in South Korean-Japanese relations since 2001, when the islets were included in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), as well as in Japanese history, geography, and civics textbooks, regardless of the fact that South Korea had maintained effective control over the disputed Islands for approximately 50 years. Recently South Korean forces have begun two days of expanded military drills on the islands according to Al Jazeera, involving naval, air, marine and army forces. Though the drill is an annual exercise, it included significantly more forces than years gone by and spanned a wider area. The actions undertaken by South Korea are an explicit assertion of sovereignty over the region and have predictably exacerbated tensions with the Japanese government.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in response to the events, “Both in light of the historical facts and in terms of international law, Takeshima is obviously Japan’s sovereign territory. This exercise by the South Korean military is completely unacceptable.” With Kenji Kanasugi, the director general at the ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, adding that the island is “obviously an inherent part of the territory of Japan,” in a statement issued to the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo. This is contested by South Korea, with its basic position best summarized by the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Dokdo is an integral part of Korean territory, historically, geographically and under international law. No territorial dispute exists regarding Dokdo…. The government of the Republic of Korea exercises Korea’s irrefutable territorial sovereignty over Dokdo.” Both states demonstrate little capacity for compromise, prolonging this territorial disputation indefinitely and unnecessarily adding yet another flashpoint for instability in the East Asian region.
The dispute is intrinsically linked to the history of Japanese colonialism in Korea, with this issue linkage playing an escalatory role and further complicating potential resolution. An example can be seen in the recent deterioration of bilateral relations as a result of a diplomatic disagreement regarding compensation for wartime forced labourers during Japan’s occupation of Korea. Now relations have soured even further, with Japan tightening its restrictions on exports of high-tech materials needed by South Korea’s chip industry, removing South Korea’s fast-track export status and South Korea announcing the scrapping of an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan.
The Takeshima/Dokdo islands have long been one of the most sensitive areas of contention between Japan and South Korea, and in the contemporary political sphere grounded in nationalism. For Korea, Dokdo is not simply an easternmost island, it’s a reminder of Japans past aggression and the region’s inability to move beyond the difficulties of the past. Issues that are as complex and interlinked with the past as this one can be a highly mobilizing issue for the public, providing an opportunity for governments and civic groups to rally support for themselves. This dispute is a barrier to the security of East Asia, with relations between South Korea and Japan effectively a hostage to history. Though bilateral ties are strained at the moment, both states share substantial interests in common and are integral actors in the region that have to potential to build stability and ultimately contribute to international peace and security.
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