The Shimane Prefectural Assembly’s establishment of an ordinance designating Feb. 22 as “Takeshima Day” to reiterate Japan’s territorial claim to the Takeshima islands, known as Tokdo in South Korea, and the Liancourt Rocks elsewhere, has aroused strong protests in Seoul and soured otherwise good bilateral relations.
What is the basis of each nation’s claim to the islands and the historical background of the territorial dispute?
On Jan. 18, 1952, the administration of Syngman Rhee, who had become South Korea’s first president in August 1948, declared sovereignty over the waters around South Korea and drew a line in the Sea of Japan, securing fishing rights in the area and claiming sovereignty over the Takeshima islands.
In July 1954, South Korea began stationing armed guards on the islands and later built a dock.
South Korea’s independence from Japan was recognized by the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which went into effect on April 28, 1952.
The treaty stated South Korea’s territory included the islands of Jeju, Geomun and Ulleung, but the Takeshima islands were not mentioned.
The draft of the treaty had included Takeshima in territory to be taken from Japan, but it was deleted following protests by Japan that the island was historically an integral part of the country.
The government claims the deletion was tantamount to international recognition of Japan’s sovereignty over the islands.
South Korea, for its part, claims the island is part of its territory, citing Directive SCAPIN-677 on Japan’s temporary territory, issued by the GHQ of the occupying U.S. Army in 1946, which said that the Ulleung, Jeju and Takeshima islands were not included in Japan’s territory.
In 1954, Japan suggested arbitration before the International Court of Justice, but South Korea refused.
Claim based on 1905 position
Japan’s claim to the islands is based on the 1905 incorporation of Takeshima into Shimane Prefecture.
At the request of hunters who wanted to take advantage of large numbers of sea lions in the waters around Takeshima at that time, the cabinet approved the incorporation and notified the prefecture after confirming that no other countries had occupied the islands.
In 1900, the Korean Empire issued an imperial edict renaming Ulleung as Ulldo county, an administrative area covering the Ulleung, Chuk and Sok islands. (Chuk island has the same Chinese characters as Takeshima.)
However, Japan argues that the Chuk island mentioned in the imperial edict is not the Takeshima islands currently under dispute, which at that time was known by another name.
South Korea admits this, but claims that the Sok island mentioned in the edict is the current Takeshima.
However, its assertion is grounded on weak evidence.
Japan’s incorporation of the islands have led to a misunderstanding among South Koreans, that during the Russo-Japanese War, Japan stole the island by taking advantage of the confusion during the final days of the Korean Empire.
According to a South Korean-government designated history textbook for middle schools, Japan incorporated the island into its territory by force during the Russo-Japanese War, but there is no evidence Japan used force and there were no protests from South Korea at the time.
Imperial Korean records claim that Chi Jung Wang of the sixth century Silla Kingdom determined the islands were South Korean territory. Such documents and history books have imbued South Koreans with a sense of ownership of the islands.
According to the “Samguk-Sagi” (History of the Three Kingdoms), published in 1145, in 512 the Silla Kingdom conquered Ulleung, then called the State of Usan. But the book does not mention whether Takeshima was included in Usan, and the islands, which have no fresh water, show no traces of people having lived there.
Edo era sees row erupt
A fishing row in the 17th century prompted the two countries to lay claim to the islands.
Beginning in the 15th century, the Chosun dynasty repatriated islanders who had apparently gone there from the neighboring Ulleung island without permission. The islanders were returned to the mainland, leaving the islands uninhabited.
In 1618, the Tokugawa shogunate gave permission to two families from Hoki Province (present-day Tottori Prefecture) to visit Ulleung, using Takeshima as a stopover.
A protest from the Chosun Dynasty led to the shogunate’s acknowledgement that the islands belonged to Korea.
In 1696, the shogunate prohibited Japanese from sailing to Ulleung, but allowed them to go to Takeshima, which was handled as a fishing base until the Meiji era (1868-1912).
Japan’s documents confirm that An Yong Bok came to Japan twice as a Korean delegate after fishing conflicts between Japanese and Korean fishermen.
According to Chosun Dynasty documents, An said the lord of Hoki Province recognized the Ulleung and Takeshima islands as Chosun territory, but the document was stolen by members of Tsushima Province.
However, there are no documents to substantiate An’s testimony.
The Japanese government has repeatedly notified South Korea that An’s testimony was baseless after comparing his report with Japan’s documents.