SHARE >>>  
/// NEWS
Island dispute

South Korea-Japan Islands Dispute

10 August 2012

The dispute between Japan and South Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands has flared up again with the surprise visit of South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, to the islands. Mr Lee is the first South Korean president to visit them although the then Prime Minister Han Seung-soo visited in 2008, sparking a row with Japan. There is some speculation that President Lee visited the islands to divert attention from domestic problems.

The Japanese government had warned Seoul about the ‘negative consequences’ of the presidential visit and immediately withdrew its ambassador from South Korea in protest. Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said he had "no understanding" of why Mr Lee had decided to visit the islands at this time. He said that he had ‘strongly protested to the ambassador’ and told him that the countries' leaders had agreed ‘we should manage relations from a wider perspective.’  

Both South Korea and Japan say they have a historical claim to the islands, and the issue has been a long-standing thorn in their bilateral relations. The islands, which are roughly equidistant from the two countries, are small but lie in fishing grounds which could also contain substantial energy deposits.

According to South Korea, Dokdo was recognised by Japan as Korean territory in 1696, after a dispute between Korean and Japanese fishermen. The islands were placed under the jurisdiction of Uldo county in 1900 but then annexed by Japan in 1905 ahead of its colonisation of the Korean peninsula. Dokdo was then restored to Korea after World War II. It has stationed a small coastguard detachment on the islands since 1954.

According to Japan, it established sovereignty over the islands in the 17th century as its sailors used the islands as a ‘navigational port, docking point for ships and a rich fishing ground’.  It then incorporated the islands into modern-day Shimane prefecture in 1905. In Tokyo’s view, South Korea acted illegally by declaring them its territory in 1952 because they were not included in territory to be returned under the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

The issue has often flared up in recent years amid lingering hostility between the two countries over historical issues roots including Japan's lengthy colonisation of Korea. Last month, Japan filed a formal diplomatic protest with South Korea after a man rammed his truck against the gate of its embassy in Seoul to protest against Japan's claim to the islands. In 2008 South Korea withdrew its ambassador to Japan after a book for Japanese teachers reportedly said Japan owned the islands.

Japan has a number of territorial disputes, with China and Russia as well as South Korea, and they often attract publicity.