Rocky Relations

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The future of two tiny, remote islets almost equidistant between Japan and South Korea might appear to matter only to the black-tailed gull and 21 other species of birds native to their craggy outcroppings. Without arable land or any fresh water, these 18 hectares of rocky mounds are barely habitable by humans. Indeed, the islands' population consists of as few as three dozen people, including some 30 Korean police, one or two lighthouse keepers and a married couple who have lived and fished there for more than three decades. The economic significance of the islands is no less marginal: the surrounding fishing waters are healthy but unexceptional, and there are no known stores of oil or natural gas beneath the seabed in this isolated area.

But to Japan (which calls the islands Takeshima) and South Korea (which calls them the Dokdo) these rocks carry a symbolic importance that belies their practical insignificance. Both countries have claimed the islands as their own for more than a century, and in recent weeks the historic squabble has leapt once more to the forefront of bilateral relations. The dispute flared in mid-April when Japan announced it would send two unarmed survey ships to the area to map the sea floor in advance of an international meeting in June, at which South Korea was expected to propose Korean names for underwater features in the vicinity. South Korea reacted furiously to the Japanese announcement, dispatching 20 patrol boats to the area and warning ominously of a "confrontation" if Japan's ships penetrated seas that Seoul regards as its own. After two days of intense negotiation, the two sides avoided a high-seas skirmish, thanks to a last-minute deal in which Japan postponed its survey and Korea agreed not to submit its name proposals. Would sanity prevail? Hardly. Korean President Roh Moo Hyun reignited the dispute last week with a spectacularly inflammatory televised speech. "Japan's present claim to Dokdo is an act negating the complete liberation and independence of Korea," he declared. "This is a matter where no compromise or surrender is possible, whatever the costs and sacrifices may be."

From the Falklands to the Spratlys, history is littered with bloody feuds over scraps of territory that seem stunningly unimportant to more detached observers. Roh's speech, with its bitter reference to Japan's "criminal history of waging wars of aggression and annihilation," was a powerful reminder of how emotionally charged such disputes can be—and of how strained the relationship between Korea and Japan has the potential to become.

The modern history of the dispute over these islets dates to 1900, when Korea formally declared them as its own. Five years later, the Japanese countered by claiming them as well. In 1910, Japan annexed mainland Korea, making it a Japanese colony for the next 35 years. In the aftermath of Japan's defeat in World War II, the Treaty of San Francisco did not mention the islands in the list of surrendered Japanese territories—a fact that the Japanese use to bolster claims that the islands are still theirs. But in 1952, Seoul declared that the islets were within Korea's borders and ordered the arrest of any Japanese boat that crossed the so-called "peace line." South Korea built a lighthouse and a helipad on the islands, and stationed coast guards there. A string of showdowns followed before Japan and South Korea normalized relations in 1965: Korea seized 300 ships (mostly fishing boats), and made 4,000 arrests, resulting in one Japanese death and dozens of injuries. When the countries finally formalized ties, they excluded mention of the islands from the treaty—an act of expediency that continues to haunt them.

One reason why the dispute has erupted again is that Roh has been under considerable political pressure at home. Kim Jaebum, a professor of diplomacy at Yonsei University in Seoul, says the liberal President has been widely perceived as soft on Japan—a political liability at a time when his beleaguered Uri party is preparing for hotly contested local elections in May. "He had to step it up," says Kim. "The Korean people were waiting for an explicit expression from the President." Sure enough, Roh's strident speech has been greeted enthusiastically at home, with an editorial in the Korea Times hailing it as "the toughest ever on Japan."

In Japan, Roh's diatribe initially inspired shock, followed by rationalizations and finally indifference. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper called the speech a "dangerous development," but Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi downplayed it, saying his government would respond "in a cool-headed manner." Unimpressed, last Friday Korea's Foreign Ministry rebuffed Koizumi's suggestion that he and Roh hold a summit meeting to help heal the rift. Japanese papers like the Nishi Nihon Shimbun have attributed Roh's pugnacity to his domestic political concerns, suggesting that Japan need not take his speech too seriously: "An uncompromising stance against Japan plays well into the anti-Japan nationalist sentiment of the people, which could improve his low approval ratings." One columnist openly doubted that Roh had the guts to make good on his threats, should Japan call his bluff.

Akihiko Tanaka, a professor of Eastern culture at the University of Tokyo, says Roh's speech and Japan's breezy dismissal of it demonstrate just how differently the two countries see the legacy of Japan's colonial past. "For Japan, this is a territorial issue and little more," Tanaka says. But for Korea, it's a matter of history and justice. "To them, it's another show of how Japan is not owning up to its past." In Korea, bitter memories of Japan's colonial occupation live on, harbored by people at the highest levels of government. Lee Hye Hoon, an opposition lawmaker in South Korea's National Assembly, says it's difficult for Japan and Korea to get along because "they attacked us, raped us, took everything from us ... and they still don't apologize."

Dokdo is actively promoted in Korea as a prime example of Japanese aggression, with the islets viewed as one of the first of Japan's many 20th century land grabs. Korean kindergartens teach children songs about Korea's glorious eastern islands, the Dokdo. In 2005, almost 20,000 Korean tourists (including one wedding party) visited the islands, even though it's a $350-per-person, five-hour boat trip from the mainland. According to a report by Peter Beck, the Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, "One would be hard pressed to find a single Korean over the age of five willing to admit that control of Dokdo does not matter." By contrast, says Hideshi Takesada, a professor of Korean politics at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies, "most people in Japan have no knowledge of the issue," and little appreciation of how deep Korean resentment runs.

In fact, Japanese society is still in thrall to the Korea Wave, a surge of interest in Korean pop, films, TV dramas and design that first overtook the nation in 2002, when the two countries co-hosted the World Cup and bilateral relations were at their best. Many Japanese politicians, meanwhile, seem either incapable of understanding Korean ire toward Japan or simply don't care. This further fuels the cycle of resentment and distrust. In 2005, for example, Shimane prefecture (the Japanese local government to which the nation claims the islands belong) passed an ordinance designating Feb. 22—the 100th anniversary of Japan's annexation of the islands—as Takeshima Day. Yu Masuda, an administrator in the Shimane prefectural government, says the goal was simply "to generate some attention" within Japan for the region's fishermen who suffer from not being able to hunt in the disputed waters. Yet the Korean response to Takeshima Day was overwhelmingly bitter, with the local government's initiative perceived as evidence of Japan's widespread, unrepentant nationalism. Korean protesters set up anti-Japan campaigns, pulled students and athletes from Japan-sponsored tournaments, canceled sister-city arrangements with Shimane towns and held demonstrations to discourage tourists from traveling to Japan. The criticism of Japan turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy as Takeshima Day 2006 took on a more jingoistic, anti-Korean tone due to Korea's anti-Japan response the previous year.

Though the vast majority of Japanese don't consider this island dispute a particularly pressing issue, there are still plenty of tough-talking, right-wing Japanese politicians to confirm Korea's worst fears that the country is just itching to press its claims. "There are probably no valuable resources under the islands," concedes Shigeru Ishiba, a prominent conservative Japanese parliamentarian. "So it's a piece of rock." Nevertheless, Japan can't abandon this particular piece of rock, Ishiba insists, because such "matters of territory are about national sovereignty."

From afar, of course, this rhetorical crossfire can seem almost comically absurd. But as history has shown, it doesn't take much for a meaningless rock to become a battleground. It's a lesson that both sides would do well to remember.