Korean rage over Dokdo not helping their claim

A Republic of Korea Navy vessle takes part in the military drill on Dokdo on October 25, 2013. (Photo : ROK Navy)

In late October, Korean and international newspapers reported on the military exercises the South Korean army held at the tiny Korean island of Dokdo. The picture was impressive: the soldiers in full battle gears, choppers and warships were present in the footage.

The footage looked good, and this is why it was widely shown across the globe. The commentaries always concentrated on the territorial dispute between Korea and Japan, which is centered on the tiny rocky outlet. The unprepared audience – that is, some 99.9% audience worldwide – was likely to come to a conclusion that Korea and Japan were engaged in a serious dispute that could produce a violent clash at any moment.
This impression is misleading, of course, and also contradicts Korea’s long-term interests.

Obviously, there is an ongoing territorial dispute between Korea and Japan. This dispute is centered on a small group of sparsely populated rocks (a family of fishermen and a number of border guards are the only mammals known to inhabit the area). For the sake of diplomatic convenience, these rocks have been promoted to the status of islands – a decision that seriously alters their international legal standing. Koreans call the tiny archipelago “Dokdo,” while in Japanese it is known as Takeshima (for those who are familiar with East Asian languages, I would add that different Chinese characters are used in these two names).

Like the history of all territorial disputes, the history of the Liancourt rocks (the name of Dokdo in English and many other languages) issue is extremely complicated with many facts being furiously disputed by the two sides – Korea and Japan. Both sides produced voluminous evidence in order to support claims that the islands were under Korean (or Japanese) control since the ancient times, but most of the supposed evidence could not stand the test of serious review by independent scholars.

A whole view of the disputed island Dokdo. (Photo : ROK Navy)

Who cared about Dokdo?

It is not surprising: states seldom care about lands that do not generate revenue. Until the late 19th century, the Liancourt rocks attracted little attention because at the time the idea of an exclusive economic zone was non-existent and the islands themselves were of zero economic value (due to the nature of shorelines, the islands cannot even be used as shelter for fishermen now).

In 1905, the Japanese government unilaterally claimed the rocks, but this decision had little impact on the rocks themselves – they remained barren, inhospitable and of little interest to anyone except mapmakers. At the time, Korea was under de-facto Japanese control and therefore, not in a position to protest – but some displeasure was expressed nonetheless.

In 1952, the South Korean government claimed the islands and since then has maintained an uninterrupted presence on the rocks. Japan has yet to accept the 1952 takeover, but it seems that the “reclaim of Takeshima” (that being the name for the rocks in Japanese) is sustained largely by two sources – namely, Japanese nationalists who, like all nationalists worldwide, enjoy portraying themselves as victims and local fisherman who are annoyed by Korea’s exclusive rights to fish in the area around the rocks. Therefore, from time to time the Japanese government and the local prefecture nearest the rocks issue statements about the need to somehow restore Japanese sovereignty over the islets.

Members of the ROK Navy’s underwater demolition team land on Dokdo from a UH-60 helicopter during a military drill at Korea’s easternmost islets on October 25, 2013. (Photo : ROK Navy)

At first glance, the situation appears to be quite stable. While one can dismiss murky and unreliable historical claims of both sides, it is difficult to argue against the simple and clear fact that the Republic of Korea has controlled the rocks for over sixty years. For the majority of unbiased observers, this means that the case is closed. Japanese nationalists are free to pursue their dreams if it makes them feel better, but they are unlikely to realize them. It also makes sense to remember that there is little chance that Japan would take the Liancourt rocks from Korea by force.

All this seemingly gives the Korean side good reason to be relaxed about these tiny rocks, but this is not in fact the case.

Every time some Japanese politician expresses doubts about Korea’s right to the rocks, grotesquely disproportionate responses in Korea follow. Massive rallies are held in front of the Japanese embassy, and highly symbolic acts of protest are committed. The depiction of the tiny islands can be found everywhere, their silhouette being, perhaps, the most frequently reproduced feature of the Korean terrain. Countless books are published, and children at primary schools are taught songs about the beauties of these (barren and inhospitable) rocks.

In some cases the protests take a somewhat absurdist turn. In 2012, a Korean soccer player began to wave the banner “Dokdo is our [Korean] land” after the Korean soccer team won a match with the Japanese (Korean athletes are known for their propensity to wave nationalist slogans at international competitions).

South Korean war veterans hold their national flags and banners near the statue symbolizing “a wartime sex slave” during a protest rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, Aug. 13, 2013. (Photo : AP/NEWSis)

But, it might get much worse. In 2008, a Korean nationalist went to Tokyo to cut his finger and dry a protest letter in his blood. During the same wave of protests caused by the Japanese government’s decision to include references to the Liancourt rocks in the school textbooks, Korean nationalists brought to the entrance of the Japanese embassy two pheasants and then proceeded to hammer them to death. The humble pheasant is the symbol of the Japanese house. The following day, ornithologists revealed to the ill-informed patriots that they had slaughtered innocents, since the brutally massacred birds belonged to the wrong species of pheasants and therefore were innocent of any association with the Japanese imperial house.

All such theatrics of course create the impression that the Liancourt Rocks are a territory seriously in dispute. An ignorant foreign observer would probably suspect that the Japanese actually controlled the rocks given the way some Korean protestors talk about them.

It seems that few understand that such intense and bellicose campaigns are highly counterproductive. Korea’s overreaction makes Korea’s position appear shaky while it is actually quite solid. The emotional responses of some make outside observers suspect that there is a great deal of truth to Japanese claims to the islands.

Police officers take a Japanese rising sun flag away from protestors attempting to tear flags during an anti-Japan rally in Seoul October 24, 2013. The rally was organized to denounce Japan for distributing a video on the internet claiming ownership over the disputed islands called “Dokdo” in Korean and “Takeshima” in Japanese. (Photo : AP/NEWSis)

Massive anti-Japanese rallies

No doubt, Korean nationalist activists believe that their passion helps to mobilize international public opinion for their cause. Unfortunately, the brutal slaughter of innocent and beautiful birds, as well as self-mutilation, will not only horrify the casual observer from outside, but may make South Korea’s claim look rather bad, and the actions of a small minority may make South Korea look like a nation of dangerous jingoistic fanatics.

There is little doubt that in many cases Korean politicians deliberately use the issue to aggravate popular nationalism that can then be channelled in a desirable direction. However, outbursts of extreme nationalist fervour are in fact quite bad for both Korea’s international image and Korea’s long-term national interests.

Instead of killing pheasants and staging massive anti-Japanese rallies, Koreans should not react at all – or at most very subtly. The best reaction to a Japanese government statement in regard to the rocks would probably be the appearance of a visibly bored and rather young looking third secretary of the Korean embassy in Japan. The very junior official will read a properly worded rebuttal to Japanese claims, leaving the few participating foreign journalists with the clear cut feeling that Japanese claims are so flimsy that nobody in Korea can be bothered to counter such obvious rubbish.
Unfortunately, due to many factors, it is unlikely that such measured and wise course of action will ever be accepted by the Korean political circles.

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