A Letter to World Friends – Why Dokdo is a Korean Territory
Dokdo is an integral part of Korean territory historically, geographically, and under international law. Here are the reasons.
Dokdo can be easily seen from the top of Chorokbong Peak in Donghae, Gangwondo Province, Korea, whereas it is too far to be seen from the Oki Islands, Japan’s closest territory to Dokdo. Neither Dokdo nor Ulleungdo is visible from Shimane Prefecture in Japan.
The flow of ocean water in the East Sea makes these two islands belong to Korea. The ocean current that flows through the Straits of Korea into the East Sea runs north. The current that runs from south to north flows through Ulleungdo, turns right, and moves south toward Dokdo. After passing Dokdo, it runs from the ocean far off Pohang, moves toward the west coast of Japan, and then north again. This current makes it easy to go from Ulleungdo to Dokdo, but difficult to go from the Oki Islands to Dokdo. This is a geographical reason why Dokdo belongs to Korea, not Japan.
In the 17th century, the governments of Joseon and Japan had a dispute over Ulleungdo and Dokdo. Yongbok An, a fisherman from Dongnae (today’s Busan) went to Japan and sued Japanese fishermen for invading the islands. The conflict between the fishermen of Dongnae in Korea and Tottori Prefecture in Japan developed into a territorial dispute between the two countries. The two governments began negotiations through diplomatic correspondence.
The Joseon government notified Japan of its sovereignty over Ulleungdo. The Japanese government held an investigation, and concluded that the two islands did not belong to Japan. Consequently, Japan issued an order to prohibit its fishermen from going to Ulleungdo, and informed Joseon of this decision. It settled the territorial dispute over Ulleungdo and Dokdo. This was in 1699. For the next 170 years, the two countries maintained a peaceful relationship.
Japan recognizes that there was a territorial dispute and a settlement between the two countries in the 17th century. It argues that the ban was limited to the passage to Ulleungdo, not to Dokdo. However, the dispute and the settlement included both islands. There is no record that Japan ever permitted Japanese fishing boats to go to Dokdo. Both countries have existing documents that describe the process and results of this territorial dispute. This is a historical reason why Dokdo belongs to Korea, not Japan.
One of the international legal grounds that supports Korea’s sovereignty over Dokdo is the Dajokan Directive, dated March 29, 1877. The Dajokan or the Grand Council of State was the highest Japanese administrative body of the period. Japan signed the Treaty of Saint Petersburg with Russia in 1875 to obtain control over the Kuril Islands or the four northern islands, in exchange for control over Sakhalin. Two years later, on March 29, 1877, the Dajokan issued a directive to clarify that Japan had nothing to do with Ulleungdo and another island (Dokdo). This directive was to define the border between Japan and Joseon after the treaty with Russia. In 1879, Japan annexed the Kingdom of Ryukyu to Okinawa Prefecture. This series of actions indicates that Japan intended to maintain peaceful relationships with Russia and Joseon. Documents that Japanese officials reviewed before the issue of the directive still exist. They detail the process and result of the territorial dispute and the settlement on Ulleungdo and Dokdo between Korea and Japan. One of the documents is the lord of Tottori Prefecture’s report that stated the two islands did not belong to the prefecture.
Japan named Dokdo “Takeshima” and unilaterally incorporated it into Shimane Prefecture, which is the legal ground for its sovereignty claim over Dokdo. The Japanese called Ulleungdo “Takeshima” and Dokdo “Matsushima” from the 14th century. Shimane didn’t distinguish between Ulleungdo and Dokdo because its residents had not been to these islands.
Upon examining historical events around 1905, it becomes clear that Japan’s claims are based on its imperialist invasions. After signing the treaty with Russia in 1875 to define their border, Japan signed the Treaty of Ganghwa with Joseon in 1876. The Treaty of Ganghwa included mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. The First Sino-Japanese War in 1895 made the world aware of Japan’s imperialist invasion. After its victory, Japan took over Taiwan from China. About ten years later, in 1904, Japan broke the treaty with Russia and went to war. In 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War, Japan sought to annex Dokdo to build watchtowers on Dokdo and observe the Russian fleets.
After its victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Japan seized Sakhalin Island from Russia by signing the Treaty of Portsmouth on September 5, 1905. Japan proclaimed its unconditional surrender to the Allies, and WWII finally ended in 1945. To normalize its international relations, Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty on September 8, 1951. Japan has a territorial dispute with Russia. It claims only four islands in the Kuril chain off Hokkaido, not the territories that it took over from Russia after its victory in the Russo-Japanese War. This is because under international law, it is difficult to defend the legitimacy of a treaty that resulted from an imperialist war.
After its founding in 1392, Joseon lasted for 500 years. In the late 19th century, Joseon changed its name to the Korean Empire and strove to respond to the rapidly changing international environment. Emperor Gwangmu, the first emperor of the Korean Empire, put great effort into protecting its territories. He proclaimed that Dokdo belongs to Korea by issuing Imperial Decree No. 41 on October 25, 1900. This happened five years prior to Japan’s annexation attempt. This is a legal reason why Dokdo belongs to Korea, not Japan, under international law.
On December 12, 1948, the UN General Assembly at its third session recognized the Republic of Korea as a legitimate government. Dokdo was under the sovereignty of Korea. If Japan had rights to Dokdo, it would have raised an objection to the UN at the time. Before the UN recognized the Republic of Korea, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Index Number (SCAPIN) 677 had already prohibited Japan from exerting any power over Dokdo. This is another legal reason why Dokdo belongs to Korea, not Japan, under international law.
The Japanese government uses the San Francisco Peace Treaty as a ground for its claim over Dokdo. Looking back on the history of the past century, it lacks plausibility. Japan’s invasion of neighboring countries began with its annexation of Ryukyu in 1879. From then on, Japan waged war after war, including the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the Japanese Invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and the Pacific War in 1941. Japan’s invasions finally ended with its emperor’s declaration of surrender on August 15, 1945. Most of territories that Japan forcibly took were returned to their respective countries.
Dokdo is no exception. With Japan’s unconditional surrender, Dokdo was returned to Korea. Ever since, Korea has been exercising its lawful sovereignty over Dokdo. Article 2 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty states that “Japan, recognizing the independence of Korea, renounces all right, title, and claim to Korea, including the islands of Quelpart (Jejudo), Port Hamilton (Geomundo) and Dagelet (Ulleungdo).”
There are many documents that prove Korea’s sovereignty over Dokdo, including the 1877 Dajokan Directive, the Cairo Declaration, the Potsdam Declaration, the Japanese Emperor’s proclamation of unconditional surrender, SCAPIN 677, and the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Japan’s claim over Dokdo is a denial of its unconditional surrender in WWII, the San Francisco Peace Treaty, and even the full independence of Korea.
As neighboring countries, Korea and Japan should build a peaceful relationship and cooperate for world peace. To make this happen, Japan must stop making claims over Dokdo. Historically, geographically, and under international law, Dokdo is a Korean territory.