South Korea makes a point about its claim on islands disputed with Japan

October 4, 2012

These two tiny volcanic islands, poking up from the sea like rabbit ears, can be scaled only by wooden steps that ascend almost vertically. A pulley system hauls food to a cafeteria built 300 feet above the waves. The only mailbox on the islands has a notice stenciled on the front, reminding that service will be slow because mail is picked up every two months.

“The postal box is a symbolic object,” the sign reads, “implying South Korea’s control.”

The islands, administered by South Korea but claimed by Japan, provide a window into Asia’s fastest-growing problem, the fight over small bits of land that have oversize and symbolic importance.

In the case of these islands, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, the show of Korean control is pushed to extremes: Only two non-government employees live here, a fisherman and his wife, both Koreans. But three South Korean telecommunications companies provide the islands with 3G cellphone service.

The notion of symbolic control has grown increasingly important in recent months amid a region-wide surge of nationalism and upcoming political leadership changes in South Korea, Japan and China. As a result, countries that once played down territorial disputes now use them to foment national pride. These small islands have become dangerous friction points between Asia’s most economically linked countries, with all sides calling their claims irrefutable and just, and brushing aside the idea of compromise.

Island disputes in Asia

The fierce dispute between Japan and China over islands in the East China Sea has spurred fears about potential armed conflict, but the dispute over Dokdo has levied a toll of its own. It has stalled military cooperation between Washington’s two closest Asian allies and reignited historical animosities that date back to Japan’s brutal land grab in the region before World War II.

The South Korean government took a dozen foreign journalists to the islands Thursday to underscore its claims. The day started in Seoul at a just-opened downtown Dokdo museum and continued later with a three-hour flight to the islands in time for lunch at the cafeteria, which normally serves the national police who live here on two-month rotations.

Dokdo consists of two main islands and a handful of rocky droplets, which do little more than break waves. The taller of the two, with a razor-sharp backbone, is home to the fisherman and his wife, who catch octopus and live in a three-story house — paid for by the provincial government — along the shore.

“It’s not as big as it looks,” the fisherman, Kim Sung-do, said. “The top floor is all water tanks” for storing drinkable water.

A handful of people have lived on the island on and off since the 1960s. Kim once worked for a fisherman who lived there, and he and his wife have been residents since 1981.

The stouter of the main islands has a helicopter pad, a lighthouse, a weight room, a small branch of the South Korean national library and a dormitory. Forty-five police officers live here, as do two civil servants and three lighthouse attendants. There are no women. There is one dog, named Seodo.

The police can move almost nowhere easily. Steps, some almost twice the size of normal ones, link the docks at the bottom of the island with the living quarters. The police stand in pairs on patrol, holding guns, waiting for maritime intruders. Seventy-nine Japanese boats have circled the islands this year, the police chief here said, but none has entered South Korea’s territorial waters.

The police are happy to joke around, and two, at the urging of a cameraman Thursday, broke into an extended dance mimicking Psy, the South Korean pop star. Although the police spoke about their job seriously, saying they’d defend the islands to the death, some also acknowledged their neighbor as a friend more than an enemy.

“Japan has accomplished a lot,” said Jeong Eun-jae, 31. “I admire their economic achievement, their diligence. They’re nice people.”

It’s at the two countries’ leadership levels that the rhetoric becomes less compromising. Both Japan and South Korea, in official documents and on government Web sites, say that these islands are unequivocally theirs, according to “international law.”

“Dokdo is indeed our territory and a place worth staking our lives to defend,” South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said when he visited the islands in August, a trip that stoked tensions.

“There is no doubt about the fact that Takeshima is Japan’s territory,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said weeks later.

North Korea supports the South’s claim.

The countries base their competing claims on a sequence of centuries-old records and half-told versions of more recent history. One of the clearest differences in their respective narratives comes in 1905, when Japan’s government, with a cabinet decision, incorporated the islands into Shimane prefecture.

According to Tokyo’s official story, the move “reaffirmed” sovereignty dating back centuries and stemmed from a citizen’s wish to use the islands to hunt sea lions. According to Seoul’s version, though, Japan strong-armed the deal after forcing Korea to revoke its diplomatic rights and used the island as a staging ground for its war with Russia. This presaged Japan’s 1910 invasion of Korea, and many Koreans refuse to separate the two.

South Korea regained control in the years after World War II and has stationed coast guard officers there since 1954.

Since 2005, tourists have been allowed on the islands, and several hundred come by ferry almost every day. They’re permitted to stay for 30 minutes, and on Thursday, they wandered around in the sunshine, snapping photos and waving flags. One man took off his shoes and bowed, doing it twice more as journalists snapped photos.

“Korea!” the man howled.

Japan, however, objected to the journalists’ trip.

“From the Japanese point of view,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Masaru Sato said in an e-mail, “visiting Takeshima from Seoul is not a domestic trip, but an international trip crossing the border between Japan and Korea.”

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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