Japan-South Korea Conflict Over The Liancourt Rocks

By: Sudhanshu Tripathi, Ph.D

Since South Korea and Japan have never been very good neighbors and ill-feelings resulting from Japan’s brutal treatment of Korean’s during the Second World War still haunts many South Koreans; the recently re-emerged dispute, that dates back several centuries, between them over The Liancourt Rocks, may permanently damage relations between these two Asian powers. While South Korea refers to the islets as “Dokdo”, Japan addresses to them as “Takeshima”.

With the surprise recent visit of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to the group of islets has forced a publicly annoyed Japan to recall its ambassador in protest.

The islets are spread over less than 0.2 sq. km. in area and are surrounded by rich fishing grounds with large-scale deposits of natural gas. Although South Korea has maintained its claim over the islets since 1954, Japan has raised international attention to the dispute by protesting South Korean claims over the islets. Further, according to The Boston Globe, “Although the dispute is centuries old, it has heated up recently due to several incidents” which included also, “a flip-flop last year by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names where they briefly labeled the rocks as having “Undesignated Sovereignty” (undone by executive order within days), and the public observations in Japan of ‘Takeshima Day’ on February 22nd.”

Korea -- Imminent Unification

The dispute has marred their otherwise close co-operation particularly their shared concerns regarding North Korea’s on-going missile and nuclear weapons program.

Lying almost midway between South Korea and Japan, the rocky volcanic outcrops in the Sea of Japan has its strategic importance for both South Korea and Japan. Perhaps to outmaneuver Japan, the South Korean president solemnised his first-ever visit here disregarding Japan’s stern warnings that the visit would strain the already tense relations between them. Not only that, President Lee toured the main island and also shook hands with coast guards as a South Korean flag fluttered in the breeze, claiming, “Dokodo is our territory. We must keep it under our close guard”. In a rare display of his command over the disputed area, the visiting South Korean leader posed for a photograph before a rock painted with the slogan “ROK (South Korean) territory.”

In fact, South Korea is preparing to build a naval base on its Uileung island just 87 km. away from these disputed group of small islands with a view to ensure quick deployment of its own warships as compared to that of Japan in the event of an eruption of any dispute between them. It is reported that once the naval base is completed, the South Korean navy vessels could reach the disputed islands about 75 minutes faster than that of any Japanese ships.

South Korean presidential elections are in December but, though, President Lee is constitutionally barred for a second term, his nationalist agenda will inevitably be carried ahead by the coming leadership because the horrible and bitter memories of the Japan’s brutal colonial rule over them is still fresh among many older Koreans.

Against this backdrop, Japan’s strong protest cancelling its diplomatic relations with South Korea is not a good omen for their cordial relations continuing so far besides encouraging North Korea, already a potential threat like Iran because of its secret nuclear weapons programme, to settle its scores with South Korea in the resulting melee due to any confrontation with Japan. Further, the US would also find it very difficult because, on the one hand, it has to deal with likely nuclear North Korea and to make a fine balance between both of his close friends with a view to forge its new-found good relations in the Asia-Pacific region including Australia and beyond, in the particular context of China’s rising imperialist assertions in the entire Asia-Pacific region and also in the world with a view to serve its (the US) geo-economic and strategic interests in the region, on the other. Since the 21st century is being declared widely as that of Asia, its progress & prosperity and also security will eventually depend only on peaceful and cordial relations among its member nations.

About the author: Dr. Sudhanshu Tripathi is an Associate Professor of Political Science based in India. Click here to mail him.