Japan's Colonial Legacy in Korea Still Endures

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Mark Selden is a coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Journal and Senior Research Associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell University. His recent books include Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance (with Elizabeth Perry), China, East Asia and the Global Economy: Regional and historical perspectives, The Resurgence of East Asia: 500, 150 and 50 Year Perspectives, and War and State Terrorism: The United States, Japan, and the Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century (with Alvin So). His homepage is www.markselden.info. This article is an excerpt from a long piece at JapanFocus.

At a time when territorial conflicts in East Asia repeatedly raise tensions between China and Japan (Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands), North and South Korea (the Northern Limit Line) and Japan-Russia (the Northern Islands/Kurils), it is worth recalling that disputes continue to simmer not only between long-time rivals, but also among allies.

Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt Rocks (hereafter Dokdo) remains a sharp thorn in the side of contemporary Japan-ROK relations.  The contentiousness of the issues is emblematic of unresolved political and territorial legacies of two centuries of colonialism in East Asia as well as of the post-war territorial disposition of the San Francisco Treaty and the global conflict that it mirrored and defined.  The story has frequently been told in terms of Japan-ROK conflict.  We explore its historical and contemporary ramifications here in a triangular century-long framework involving Japan, Korea and the United States.

From many angles the problem should be among the simplest to resolve of several outstanding conflicts that divide Japan and Korea.  The two islets and some 35 rocks that comprise Dokdo are minuscule (totaling 46 acres), largely uninhabited (save for a Korean octopus fisherman and his wife, a poet, and a rotating team of approximately 35 Korean coast guard/light house staff), and of scant direct economic value, though the fishing grounds in the area are rich and the environs may contain natural gas and mineral deposits.

However, the combination of Korean anger over colonial legacies, territorial conflicts and multiple unresolved bi-lateral and regional issues, many of them legacies of Cold War/hot war conflicts, assures that the matter will continue to be contentious.

For more than half a century since 1953, Dokdo has been under South Korean jurisdiction.  The Dokdo question was not resolved, however, by bilateral or multilateral agreement, and although the issue surfaced at various times including the 1965 negotiations over Japan-ROK normalization, it was not until 2005 that Japanese claims led to public standoff over the islets.  So, while tensions have repeatedly roiled the waters between Japan and South Korea since 1945, Dokdo was not prominent among them, particularly in the public arena.  Moreover, in contrast to a range of territorial issues that emerged as a result of the Asia-Pacific War and the dismantling of the Japanese empire, and were left unresolved in the San Francisco Treaty of 1951 that ended the occupation of Japan, for example, the controversy over the Kuriles/Northern Islands (hereafter Kuriles) that have long been a Japan-Russia bone of contention of sufficient seriousness to derail a World War II peace treaty, there is no significant security issue or population at stake in the case of Dokdo.  Finally, while for sound historical reasons that are discussed below, Dokdo is emotionally important to Koreans, there is no significant Japanese national constituency for whom the islets loom large.

Dokdo figures in territorial, economic and border conflict issues. Perhaps equally important from a Korean perspective, it poses sensitive issues of nationalism and national interest that resonate in such realms as historical memory, as manifested in controversies over textbook treatments, national monuments, historical museums, films, manga, and other forms of representation that highlight the divide separating the two nations six decades after the end of colonial rule. This complex of historical memory legacies and territorial conflict of course bedevils not only Japan-ROK relations but also Japan-China, Japan-Russia, China-ROK, and DPRK-ROK relations, among others.

Dokdo in longue durée perspective and in the era of Japanese colonialism

As Alexis Dudden observed in Troubled Apologies: Among Japan, Korea and the United States, the competing longue durée historical claims by Japan and Korea provide no firm basis for contemporary resolution of the Dokdo controversy.3 The history of the long twentieth century does provide such a basis, however, at least to the extent of clarifying the events and actors that led to the islets’ changing fate and the various claims and counter claims. While many analyses of the problem center on the post-colonial and post-San Francisco Treaty disposition of Dokdo, what is critical for understanding and assessing competing claims in the new millennium is that Japanese forces seized Dokdo in January 1905, the very year in which Japan compelled Korea at gunpoint to accept a treaty that made it a protectorate. Control of Dokdo and nearby Ulleungdo Island played important roles in Japan’s decisive defeat of the Russian navy. The 1905 Korea-Japan Treaty brought to an end a long epoch during which Korea’s international relations were primarily governed by its tributary relationship with China, one in which Chinese political and cultural influence was strong. In contrast to the colonial relationship that followed, the tributary framework allowed Korea a high degree of autonomy in domestic affairs.

Emboldened by military victories over China and Russia in 1895 and 1905, and bolstered by British and American support for Japanese claims, Japanese forces proceeded to disband the Korean army in a crackdown that took more than 15,000 Korean lives between 1907-09. In 1907, the Japanese compelled King Kojong, who continued to oppose the protectorate, to retire in favor of his mentally retarded son, Sunjong, en route to the annexation and subordination of Korea to colonial rule in 1910.  In other words, for Koreans, the seizure of Dokdo is inseparable from the subjugation and humiliation of the nation at the hands of Japan, a trauma that remains vivid to this day. As Bruce Cumings puts it, “Japanese imperialism stuck a knife in old Korea and twisted it, and that wound has gnawed at the Korean national identity ever since.”  For Japan, by contrast, its immediate use in the Russo-Japanese War aside, Dokdo was a matter of little moment.  Certainly, it was among the least significant of the numerous territorial conquests over the coming decades, conquests which eventually included Korea, Manchukuo, large areas of China and much of Southeast Asia as well as Micronesia, all incorporated in a vast but short-lived Asia-Pacific empire.

Already in 1905, however, this was not simply a Japan-Korea, or even a Japan-Korea-China story. The Taft-Katsura Agreement, which formalized Japan’s seizure of Dokdo and paved the way for annexation, was predicated on a US-Japan understanding in which Japan endorsed the colonization of the Philippines in exchange for US recognition of its annexation of Korea. The decade 1895-1905 thus nicely displays the imperial ambitions of the two rising colonial powers in Asia, Japan and the United States. In this instance, their shared interests were at the expense of subjugated people in Korea and the Philippines. The US would again play a critical role nearly half a century later in sowing the seeds for subsequent Japan-Korea conflict over Dokdo in the wake of the Asia-Pacific War….


The case for ROK possession of Dokdo is, in my view, compelling, in terms of international law, the history of the long twentieth century, and morality. As Lee and Van Dyke observe, the “long period of effective occupation [since 1953], especially when coupled with Korea’s strong historical claim to Dokdo, provides substantial support for Korea’s claim of sovereignty over these islets.”  That claim is reinforced by the historical circumstances of Japan’s 1905 seizure of Dokdo and colonization of Korea, all the more so in light of Japan’s failure to provide effective state apology and compensation for the victims of colonial era atrocities such as forced laborers and the comfort women. The issue can best be resolved between the two nations within the framework of an agreement like the 1996 accord on fishing rights that established (but never implemented) shared rights in the area. Such an agreement could extend to oil, gas and mineral development and other areas of mutual interest. It need not be limited to Dokdo, moreover, but could extend to other islands in the strait such as Tsushima. In this way, it could serve as a foundation for the two nations’ cooperation.

The clashes of 2010 between the DPRK and ROK pivoting on different interpretations of their borders around the Northern Limit Line, and between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and the waves of nationalist sentiment and military actions provoked in each instance, made plain the volatility of territorial sea issues that are rooted in claims that frequently originate in the nineteenth century but have been exacerbated in the wars of the long twentieth century.  The alternatives to accommodation are stark.

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