South Korea and Japan share an at times volatile post-war relationship. The dispute over the Dokdo/Takeshima islets remains a significant point of contention in the strained South Korea–Japan relationship. The issue most recently came to a head during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Joseph Egidio specially for the East Asia Forum.
The dispute over the rocky outcrops, located roughly halfway between the two nations, has significant economic implications as both nations claim sovereignty over the area and its associated Exclusive Economic Zone. Despite having hardly any usable landmass, both states attach deep sentiments to the islets due to post-war turmoil and historically charged wounds.
South Korea has a strong historical and national identity attached to the islets, which was the first Korean territory officially assimilated by the Japanese empire in 1905. The islets reinforce the anti-Japanese sentiment demonstrated by the government, civic groups and public opinion. South Korea’s claim over the territory dates back to at least 512 AD, predating any mention of Dokdo/Takeshima in Japanese documents by 200 years. South Korea also maintains an active military presence on the islets and hosts biannual military drills in the surrounding waters, which hinders Japanese attempts to mediate conversations on political and economic stability in the region.
Japan claims the islets as its inherent territory due to its incorporation of the area prior to its Second World War imperial conquest. This assimilation within the Japanese jurisdiction, it is claimed, was administered under the principle of terra nullius.
In May 2021, South Korea officially protested to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over the Tokyo Olympic Committee’s official Olympic torch relay map, which included the islets in its representation of Japan. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato rejected South Korea’s protest, reiterating the Liberal Democratic Party’s belief that ‘Takeshima is a territory inherent to Japan in view of historical facts and international laws’ — despite the islets effectively being under South Korean administration since the 1950s.
According to South Korean media reports, the IOC had requested the removal of all visual cues relating to the islets from North and South Korea’s 2018 Winter Olympic Games ‘Korean Unification Flag’. The London 2012 Olympics also saw South Korean soccer player Park Jong Woo barred from receiving a bronze medal with his teammates after parading on field with a placard reading ’Dokdo is our territory.’ Since the IOC, which is supposed to be politically neutral, did not mediate the controversy for a third time at the Tokyo 2020 Games, many South Korean politicians complained of a double standard favouring Japan.
South Korea also protested civic activists’ use of the Japanese rising sun flag outside the Tokyo Olympic village, which numerous Asian nations see as a symbol of Japanese imperialism. Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, stated that the Olympic Village is a place of protection for athletes where ‘divisive messages’ are not tolerated.
Tensions further escalated when the South Korean Olympic team hung signs containing references to Japanese invasion and propaganda-like messages in the Tokyo Olympic Village resulting in an official protest from Japan. The IOC deemed the signs to be a violation of the Olympic Charter and the South Korean Olympic team removed them from display.
While bilateral negotiations on claims to sovereignty over the islets have remained at a standstill for decades, the IOC’s handling of the issue was criticised. The lack of a formal response or mediation from the IOC regarding Japan’s torch relay map in effect allowed the Tokyo Olympic Committee to press Japanese territorial claims.
South Korea and Japan have endured a tumultuous period of political, economic and social disagreements in recent years. Japanese trade restrictions put in place in 2019 on the export of three chemicals used in semiconductors and smartphone screens was a new low. The South Korean public boycott on Japanese goods and government bans on produce from Fukushima prefecture over radiation concerns continue to stir discontent in Tokyo. Conversations on the impact of Pyongyang’s nuclear program are also unbalanced between the two nations. The territorial dispute continues to stir South Korean public opinion, often inciting local protests and backlash from South Korean political figures.
President Moon Jae-in’s administration is seemingly neutral on many topics, but a deeper look into policy reveals his hesitancy to mediate struggling bilateral relations. South Korea’s interests in the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute are overtly presented through the outpouring of social action and civic protest. Japan, on the other hand, fights back with the voice of political figures.
South Korea and Japan continue to maintain an ‘agree to disagree’ stance on the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute after it wasn’t allocated to either side in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. But the IOC failed to exercise control over Japanese actions that laid claim to the Dokdo/Takeshima islets in Olympic material, even though constraints were imposed on South Korea at past events. This has left many South Koreans feeling hard done by. The Olympics were considered an opportunity for the two nations to resolve wartime and colonial era issues by formally conducting relationship-building meetings throughout the games, but this was not to be.
Joseph Egidio is an honours student at the University of Adelaide.