Once again the peace and security in East Asia are in danger. The surprise visitation of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to the Liancourt Rocks (or Takeshima/Dokdo) caused a great domestic and international stir. Back in 2008 when he took the office, President Lee has expressed his willingness to look beyond the historical disputes between Korea and Japan, so the recent event has perplexed and angered many Japanese people.
South Korea insists that there is no territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks. The country has argued that the Rocks belongs historically to the Korean people. The Rocks are occupied by South Korea since 1954 in a peaceful and effective manner. That is the reason why South Korea continues to reject Japanese government’s invitation to bring the dispute before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Japan, on the other hand, argues that the Liancourt Rocks are Japanese territory recognized both by San Francisco Peace Treaty and the U.S. government (see Rusk Note of 1951). The dispute surfaced when Syngman Rhee, the First President of South Korean President, draw the territorial line, including the Liancourt Rocks in January 1951 only three months before the peace treaty came into force. Since 1954, South Korea has occupied the Rocks.
In spite of Japan’s claim, some specialists in international law argue if the case is brought before the ICJ, South Korea will likely win. In various territorial disputes, the international community has recognized the claim of a state, which actually occupied the disputed territory. The cases of Island of Palmas (1928) and of Clipperton Island (1932) have clearly shown this. Of course, one of the major differences is that Japan’s claim is not merely the claim of discovery but the actual annexation of the Rocks into territory in 1905, which, at least, lasted effectively and peacefully until 1945, or arguably until 1954.
During the cold war period, the best solution for the dispute was the silence. Due to various reasons, neither country was willing to deal with the issue. After the democratization of South Korea as well as its economic prosperity, two nations have matured, so they should and can resolve the issue in the international setting.
Before the international community, South Korea can argue its legitimate claim for the Liancourt Rocks through historical evidence as well as its peace and effective presence in the Rocks. Similarly, Japan can also argue its legitimate claim via the fact of its annexation of the Liancourt Rocks and its recognition by the international community before the World War II as well as in San Francisco Peace Treaty. Even if the ICJ recognize the claim of South Korea and nothing changes substantially, the two nations can move on with one less disputes between them.
Japan and South Korea must resolve this issue quickly. In spite of the difficult past, the two nations, especially during last decades, have made an amazing progress toward each other culturally, economically, and politically. Trade has almost doubled in its amount since 2000. The awaited free trade agreement can mutually benefit and bring greater prosperity to the two nations. Culturally, the last decade has seen an amazing exchange of culinary delights, beautiful sites, and, of course, television dramas. The dispute over the Liancourt Rocks does chill this warm relationship. I would imagine many people in both countries do not want to stop this wonderful tide of cultural exchange.
Of course, the issue over the disputed Rocks is not the only stumbling block between South Korea and Japan. There are more issues to be dealt with between the two nations. But each issue must be faced with patience and tenacity in a future oriented way, having the mutual benefit and prosperity as the ultimate goal. Just screaming in one-sided manner would not help to move beyond the impasse of the issue. That is why I have suggested the two nation sit before the international arbitrator and constructively seek the solution in order to achieve the better, more prosperous, and peaceful future. This, I imagine, is the desire of the people of both nations.
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