Claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo, tiny island outcroppings stir nationalist fervor

A model of the Dokdo islets is on display at the Dokdo Museum in Seoul.



SEOUL — Ulleung Island may be best known for its clean air, rugged scenery and fresh squid. But the museum business also is booming on this remote island, some 75 miles from South Korea’s eastern coast.

Lee Seung Jin says he has the Japanese government to thank.

The island is the closest sizeable land mass to Dokdo, two tiny outcroppings of rock claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo. And even though it’s a four-hour ferry ride to Ulleung, the number of visitors to the island’s Dokdo Museum has skyrocketed — from 148,000 in 2009 to almost a quarter of a million last year.

“The more Japan yaps away about Dokdo, the more visitors come,” said Lee, the museum’s director.

Although controlled by Seoul, Tokyo also claims the islands, which are known as Takeshima in Japan. Both countries cite historical documents to back up their claims, but the issue rankles, especially in South Korea, where ownership of the islands is a matter of national pride and passionately defended by politicians, the media and even schoolchildren, who are taught early that Dokdo is a matter of national sovereignty.

The issue is seen in Korea as a painful reminder of the Japanese colonial occupation that ended in 1945 and is linked to concerns about a perceived renewal of Japanese militarism and past imperial ambitions.

For its part, Japan claims it annexed Takeshima into Shimane prefecture in 1905, which has been holding a Takeshima Day event for the past eight years.

Despite the U.S. urging its two key Pacific allies to resolve the matter peacefully, the prefecture again held Takeshima Day last weekend, a move than has deepened the diplomatic rift.

Shimane prefecture officials established the event because they say the national government was not doing enough to educate the public about the matter.

And even though the day is ignored by most Japanese, Tokyo sent a high-ranking government official — Parliamentary Secretary Yoshitami Kameoka — to attend last weekend’s ceremonies in Matsue, on Japan’s west coast. It was the second straight year a government representative has attended the event.

South Korea’s government, which had called for Japan to cancel the event, summoned a senior Japanese embassy official to the foreign ministry last weekend to complain. Seoul also castigated Japan for its stance on Dokdo/Takeshima and its “evasion of responsibility” over the use of sex slaves — known as “comfort women” — by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

Japanese officials have said the Takeshima Day ceremony was not meant to anger Seoul, and the two countries have an important and cooperative relationship.

“We have no interest in deteriorating Japan-South Korea relations,” Ichita Yamamoto, Japan’s minister of state for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs, said during a recent news conference.

The rhetoric over the islets, which are inhabited by two private citizens and a few public employees and police officers, is unlikely to escalate to military confrontation, though some in South Korea think Japan harbors hopes of conquering Dokdo.

The debate might seem trivial to outsiders, particularly in light of the far more serious security concerns posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly belligerent China embroiled in its own clashes over ownership of islands in the East China Sea, including a dispute with Japan over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

However, a number of historical grievances stemming from Japan’s colonization of the peninsula continue to plague the relationship, including a perceived refusal by Japan to fully acknowledge its use of comfort women.

Tensions were further aggravated in December when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which memorializes the nation’s war dead, including Class A World War II criminals. Many also fear that proposed changes to Japan’s pacifist constitution, which would allow it to come to the aid of its allies, signal a return to the country’s militaristic past.

Yet, a recent report by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul found that among South Koreans, the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute remains the biggest obstacle to improving relations between the two countries.

“In terms of strategic and economic value, Dokdo may be almost worthless,” Asan’s Bong Youngshik said. “But because of its symbolic power, appealing to the nationalistic sentiments of the Koreans, it is still the most important and volatile issue in terms of Korea and Japan conducing their relations.”

The Takeshima/Dokdo debate received relatively little attention in Japan until former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a surprise visit to the islets in 2012, the first by a Korean president, and called for the Japanese emperor to apologize for the Japanese occupation of Korea. Lee’s actions angered many in Japan, where his visit to the islets was seen as an unnecessary provocation and his comments about the emperor offensive.

“He woke a sleeping dog,” said Toshimitsu Shigemura, an expert on Korean issues at Waseda University in Tokyo. Unlike in South Korea, he said Takeshima means little to the Japanese people.

“When the South Korean side remembers it, the Japanese are reminded of it,” he said, “If the Japanese are not reminded of it, they don’t notice it.”

For its part, the Abe administration was likely trying to find a middle ground by sending the parliamentary secretary instead of a higher-ranking minister to the Takeshima Day ceremony, Shigemura said.

“They don’t want to make it a diplomatic problem,” he said.

The U.S. has maintained a position of neutrality on the matter.

During a visit to Seoul earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the need for close diplomatic and security cooperation and urged the two countries to “put history behind them and move the relationship forward.”

Bong said dealing directly with disputes over islands in North Asia would be politically costly for the U.S.

Instead, Washington sends indirect signals of support. President Barack Obama’s next trip to Asia will include a stop in Seoul, signaling that the U.S. cares about Korea’s historical issues with Japan and does not place greater value on its relationship with Tokyo, according to Bong.

“Once the U.S. makes any precedent that it would be willing to be in the middle of the two disputant countries, the Pandora’s box will be open,” he said. “You do not want to get involved in a game you know you cannot win.”

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A live video feed showing the Dokdo islets is on display in the main lobby of an office building in Seoul. A Dokdo museum, one of about a half dozen in South Korea, is located in the basement of the building. Tensions over the islets, which are claimed by both South Korea and Japan, are viewed by South Koreans as the biggest obstacle to improving relations between the two countries, according to a recent study. The islands are called Takeshima by the Japanese.