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Politics & Security

Returning Takeshima is the First Step to Better Relations with Japan

South Korea likes to blame Japan for many of the bilateral problems that face the two countries, but first it needs to acknowledge its own harmful role.

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Takeshima, Shimane Prefecture, Japan

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Imagine being 74 years old and being sick—or not being at your full potential—for 70 years of that time.

This is what the Japan-South Korea relationship is like. Japan and the Republic of Korea—as South Korea is officially known—have generally had cool relations since the latter country came into being in 1948. Indeed, it took 17 years after South Korea’s independence before the treaty establishing basic diplomatic relations between the two neighbors was finally signed in 1965.

There are many reasons for the cool relations. Both countries own some of the blame, but on one of the key issues—the Takeshima Island dispute—South Korea is clearly in the wrong. 

This fact, importantly, was clearly recognized by the international community, and in particular by the United States at the time, and is why I referred to “70 years” at the outset of this commentary. 

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Old British Map shows Takeshima (Liancourt Rock) as Japanese Territory

Seventy years ago this month on January 18, 1952, the first president of the Republic of Korea unilaterally proclaimed the “Syngman Rhee Line,” declaring maritime sovereignty within that line and announcing that Takeshima and other islands and all the seas near the Korean Peninsula belonged to the ROK.

The Government of Japan, still under Allied occupation, officially objected to this declaration ten days later. Unfortunately, Rhee’s proclamation came a month before the scheduled start of negotiations to normalize relations between Japan and South Korea. 

Initially, Japanese officials thought it was simply a ploy to prevent Japanese vessels from the good fishing waters or as a tactic in the upcoming negotiations, But South Korea had more long-range goals for the islands it calls Tokto (Dokdo).

During the discussions for the Allied Peace Treaty, otherwise known as the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed on September 8, 1951, South Korea requested that Takeshima be included among the areas being separated from Japan, but the US government declined. 

In a response to the ROK government dated a month before on August 10,1951, the United States State Department stated:

As regards the island of Dokdo, otherwise known as Takeshima or Liancourt Rocks, this normally uninhabited rock formation was according to our information never treated as part of Korea and since about 1905, has been under the jurisdiction of the Oki Islands Branch Office of Shimane Prefecture of Japan. The island does not appear ever before to have been claimed by Korea.

As such, the Article 2 (a) of the allied peace treaty reads: “Japan, recognizing the independence of Korea, renounces all right, title, and claim to Korea, including the islands of Quelpart, Port Hamilton and Dagelet.” Takeshima is not included. 

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The treaty was signed by almost all of the participating nations. South Korea was not a participant, in part because it declined to participate. 

Dogged Unilateralism

A few months before the international treaty went into force, Rhee took the aforementioned unilateral action declaring maritime sovereignty. Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States protested it. The American government wrote:“[it] regards with deep concern the provisions” of the ROK’s sudden proclamation.

Moreover, the United States Embassy, located at that time in Busan (Pusan), reaffirmed in a note verbale to the ROK on December 4, 1952, that Takeshima indeed was Japanese territory.

Historically, Japanese sea lion hunts did take place on Takeshima, along with fisheries in nearby waters. (Photo courtesy of Author Yumiko Sugihara's 'Takeshima Picture Book'

A couple of months later, in February 1953, South Korea began seizing Japanese fishing vessels operating inside the Rhee Line, even shooting the leader of a fishing group, and in 1954, after the ceasefire in the Korean War went into effect, South Korea formally occupied Takeshima. 

These actions greatly bothered the US government, which was a formal ally to both the Republic of Korea (via the Mutual Defense Treaty) and Japan (via the US-Japan Security Treaty). The United States government chose, however, not to get involved, recommending instead that the two countries submit the issue to arbitration by the International Court of Justice. Japan attempted to do so in 1954, 1962, and 2012, but the ROK has effectively rejected Japan’s approaches.

Over the years, the U.S. government came to recognize that as long as Rhee held power, a solution to the Takeshima dispute was unlikely.

International navigation charts have shown Takeshima, also called Liancourt Rock, in Japanese territory for hundreds of years.

‘Serious and Permanent’ Impediment

In the spring of 1960, following Rhee’s resignation due to nationwide criticism of rigged elections, US Ambassador to Japan, Douglas MacArthur, the nephew of the general, wrote to his colleagues in the State Department that the United States government should “use all our influence to persuade” the new regime to return “all Japanese fishermen hostages…who have suffered so cruelly from Rhee’s uncivilized and oppressive acts” and “to cease practice of seizing Japanese fishing vessels on high seas.” 

Doing so, MacArthur argued, “would not only rid [the] new ROK regime of liability of practicing hostage diplomacy but also more than anything else would lay [the] foundation in Japan for really fruitful negotiations.” 

Moreover, after mentioning that Rhee had “seized by force and is holding illegally Takeshima Island which has always been considered as Japanese territory,” MacArthur observed that this “is [a] very serious and permanent irritant in Japan-ROK relations and there can be no over-all ROK-Japan settlement until this Japanese island is returned to Japan. Therefore, we should also press new ROK regime to return Takeshima to Japan.” 

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South Korea has put armed police onto Takeshima

MacArthur was not hopeful, however, and stated that at the minimum, the ROK should be pressed to “agree to submit [the] matter to International Court of Justice for arbitration” as previously recommended in 1954 by a US mission to the region. 

Unfortunately, ROK intransigence was not limited to the Rhee government, and has been consistent throughout.

RELATED: U.S. Air Force Charts Confirm Takeshima is Japanese Territory

Acknowledging Seoul’s Reflection

South Korea likes to blame Japan for many of the bilateral problems that face the two countries. But before it does, it needs to acknowledge its own harmful role, especially in the case of Takeshima. Doing so will hopefully begin the long road to recovery after many decades of illness that the relationship has suffered.

During the confirmation hearings for Rahm Emanuel as United States ambassador to Japan, he was given specific instructions to facilitate improved relations between Japan and South Korea. There is a need for that, but he needs to know that in the case of Takeshima, the ROK is clearly at fault for the 70-year dispute.

As fellow democracies in an unfriendly region, Japan and South Korea need each other. Indeed, South Korea, surrounded by the People’s Republic of China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Russia—some of the worst actors in the region if not the world—and blocked by the First Island Chain, especially needs Japan. 

It also needs a free, open, and prosperous Taiwan. Thus, cooperation with Japan is not only right but smart. 

South Korea should start by undoing the damage it has caused to the relationship with Japan by renouncing its claim to Takeshima and instead pursuing great cooperation in the security and economic realms.

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Author: Robert D. Eldridge, PhD

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