Don’t Forget the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo / Takeshima)

The site of the stupidity

A New Approach to An Old Problem 

This represents my own assessment of a conflict that goes back several decades. Rather than taking one side on a bipartisan controversy, my analysis leads me to an unconventional conclusion. While my perspective and solutions may seem unconventional, and and may not satisfy neither of the parties involved, it is a good exercise in outside the box thinking,

When old problems become intractable, or conventional thinking result in diminishing returns, novel or creative thinking becomes necessary.  This is related to the process of lateral thought.

As Wikipedia notes: “the catchphrase, or cliché, has become widely used in business environments, especially by management consultants and executive coaches, and has spawned a number of advertising slogans. To think outside the box is to look further and to try not thinking of the obvious things, but to try thinking beyond them.”  So what exactly is the problem, and what can be done?

The Core of the Problem: Strident Nationalism

The strident ultra nationalistim that pervades the Korean psyche over ownership of two useless rocks in the Sea of Japan – the Liancourt Rocks – (known in Korea as Dokdo and in Japan as Takeshima) is jingoist stupidity at its most spectacular. In fact, the unsportsmanlike display of a Korean Olympic soccer athlete, who held up a sign at the Korea Japan game announcing that  “Dokdo is our land” even cost him a bronze medal. As if that isn’t enough, people have self immolized over this meaningless issue.

Korea has thousands of islands and islets, so is there is any compelling reason to create international tensions over completely useless rocks in the East Sea? While several of rationalizations are given for the extent of the fervor over the two rocks, including fishing rights and the supposed presence of minerals beneath, the fact remains that if there were any economic viability to these two islets, such as minerals, they would already have been mined. No, it’s not about logic, but about the sense of resentment toward the Japanese relating to their past colonization by them. It’s about group identification and psychological tribalism, the same sort of ugly nationalism we see the world over.

The Analysis: No Compelling Historical Evidence for Ownership Claims

The extent to which these  human instincts have corrupted the national consciousness can be seen in the corruption of historical scholarship. Spurious claims have been made by Korean scholars attempting to attempt to prove that Korea historically exercised control over these islets – or even knew of their existence. Old maps purporting to show these islets have been dredged up, but there is no conclusive evidence that the land masses shown are not in fact the nearby island of Ulleongdo.  Having seen the documents, I find that there is no compelling objective historical evidence for the case of historical ownership on either side.

The Cause: How The U.S. Created the Problem

The history of these islets is interesting. Sigmund Rhee, the Republic of Korea’s first president claimed these when he noticed that the political maps drawn by the US as an occupying force after WWII had left these islets out in international waters. Since then, Korea has occupied the islets, and somehow erected a military outpost on the larger of the two rocks. With all the continued talk of “the beauty of Dokdo,” the already barren rocks are even unsightly, marred by the presence of an ugly military outpost. The U.S., needing both Japan and South Korean allies, has tread water on the issue, attempting to remain neutral out of its own self interest.

The Barren Result: A Tool of Nationalist Politics

Every year, unscrupulous Korean politicians engage in provocative actions toward Japan to stoke the fires of ugly nationalism for political gain. For instance, one year the Post Office issued Dokdo stamps, which are naturally used for international mailings. This year, the President paid a visit to the hunks of rock during the Olympic Games. One year, poor Japanese fishermen from the nearby Prefecture who depend for their livlihood on fishing in the waters near those rocks, were prohibited from exercising their rights to fish nearby in clear violation of international treaty.

A regrettable legacy of hatred, irrationalism and bigotry is kept alive by Dokdo politics.  Since the U.S. military used the rocks for target practice in the years following the Korean War, it’s a shame that they didn’t level them entirely.

I produce the Economist article, which puts issues like these in perspective, in its entirety below.

Barren Rocks, Barren Nationalism

Both countries should turn to pragmatism, not stridency, in dealing with island spats

THE wave of anti-Japanese protests that has erupted across China, after tit-for-tat landings by ultranationalists on uninhabited islands which the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese the Diaoyus, is alarming. It is a reminder of how a barren group of disputed rocks could upend pain-staking progress in the difficult relations between Asia’s two biggest powers (see article). And the spat even raises the spectre of a conflict that could conceivably draw in America.

History always weighs heavily in East Asia, so it is essential to understand the roots of the squabble. China has never formally controlled the Senkakus, and for most Japanese, blithely forgetful of their country’s rapacious, imperial past, possession is nine-tenths of the law. Yet the islands’ history is ambiguous. The Senkakus first crept into the record lying in the Chinese realm, just beyond the Ryukyu kingdom, which in the 1870s was absorbed by Japan and renamed Okinawa. The Chinese emperor objected to Japanese attempts to incorporate the Senkakus into Okinawa, but in 1895 Japan did it unilaterally. After Japan’s defeat in 1945 the Americans took over Okinawa’s administration, along with the Senkakus. In the 1951 peace treaty between Japan and the United States, as well as in the agreement to return Okinawa in 1972, the Senkakus’ sovereignty was left vague (Taiwan claims them too). The Americans say the dispute is for the parties to resolve amicably.

Three decades ago that looked possible. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s modernisation, recognised the risks. When he signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Japan in 1978, the two countries agreed to kick the Senkakus into the long grass. “Our generation”, Deng said, “is not wise enough to find common language on this question. The next generation will be wiser.” His hopes have been dashed.

Chinese maritime power is growing, in ways that not only challenge Japan’s control of the Senkakus (but also worry other countries that have maritime disputes with China). Maritime law has evolved with exclusive economic zones around territories (see article). So all the islets have become more valuable. The current squabble began when the right-wing governor of Tokyo declared that the metropolitan government would buy the Senkakus from their indebted private owner, the better to assert Japanese sovereignty. Not to be seen as weak, Yoshihiko Noda, the prime minister, retorted that the Japanese government would buy them instead.

The natural solution

What can be done? Neither side wants to jeopardise good relations, let alone go to war, over the Senkakus. But the fact that there is a (remote) danger of conflict should prompt both governments to do two things. The long-term task is to defang the more poisonous nationalist serpents in both countries’ politics. In Japan that means producing honest textbooks so that schoolchildren can discover what their predecessors did. In China (no promulgator of honest textbooks itself) the government must abandon its habit of using Japanophobia as an outlet for populist anger, when modern Japan has been such a force for peace and prosperity in Asia. But the priority now is to look for ways to minimise the chances of unwished-for conflict, especially in seas swarming with rival vessels.

At a minimum that means not only having hotlines between the two governments, but also cast-iron commitments from the Chinese always to pick up the phone. A mechanism to deal with maritime issues between the two countries was set up last year, but crumbled when put to the test. Ideally, both sides should make it clear that military force is not an option. China should undertake not to send official vessels into Japanese waters, as it still occasionally does, and deal more forcefully with militaristic sabre-rattlers like the general who suggested using the Senkakus for bombing practice. Back in 2008 the two countries agreed on a framework for the joint development of disputed gasfields in the East China Sea, though China unpicked this good work when a Chinese trawler rammed a Japanese coastguard vessel near the Senkakus in 2010.

As for the Senkakus themselves, Mr Noda’s proposal to buy them would have value if accompanied by a commitment to leave them unvisited. And it would be easier to face down the nationalists if America acknowledged its own past role in sweeping competing claims over the Senkakus under the carpet. Our own suggestion is for governments to agree to turn the Senkakus and the seas round them—along with other rocks contested by Japan and South Korea—into pioneering marine protected areas. As well as preventing war between humans, it would help other species. Thanks to decades of overfishing, too few fish swim in those waters anyway.

Snap! principle of U.S. responsibility:

The U.S. as an international military power, has played a key role in creating the problem. The damage having been done, the U.S. now wants to remain neutral. It’s time the U.S. took responsibility and enter into negotiations to make these disputed islets demilitarized international waters dedicated to the protection of marine protected areas to serve humanity rather than divide it.