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Political science Prof. David Garretson spoke about the international law behind island disputes Friday as part of the University of Maryland University College lecture series at the Dragon Hill Lodge at Yongsan Garrison.
Political science Prof. David Garretson spoke about the international law behind island disputes Friday as part of the University of Maryland University College lecture series at the Dragon Hill Lodge at Yongsan Garrison. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)

YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — As territorial disputes wage on over islands scattered around Asia, political science professor David Garretson spoke about the international law behind disputes Friday as part of the University of Maryland University College lecture series.

The series, in its 10th year, presents timely and interesting topics each term by UMUC faculty for the military public. Friday’s lecture grew out of discussions Garretson had with other faculty over Dokdo Island, claimed by South Korea and Japan. Japan refers to the island as Takeshima.

Garretson gave two other examples in his talk: the Kuril Islands north of Hokkaido claimed by Japan and Russia; and small islands near Okinawa claimed by Japan and China.

Countries have powerful reasons to maintain their claims, Garretson said. National boundaries extend 12 miles to sea, but under international law countries can claim fishing and mineral rights for 200 miles around a territory.

Disputes also play up national solidarity, he said. A weak government can use disputes to stir up nationalism and gain domestic political support.

But no factor is as dramatic and persistent as nationalism, especially in East Asia.

When China and South Korea protested a war-era revision to Japanese history books, the Dokdo dispute resurfaced. In protest, two South Koreans severed their fingers.

“Dokdo Island has been very important to the Koreans historically,” Garretson said. Even North and South Korea — still technically at war — agree that it doesn’t belong to Japan.

Under international law, one major argument for a country’s ownership is occupation. In Dokdo, South Korea has a small police unit on the otherwise deserted island.

Japan and Russia have both controlled the Kuril islands in the past and both claim they are geographically connected to their own countries.

Treaties and agreements also determine ownership under international law, but either can be vague or nonexistent. Japan and Russia never addressed ownership of the Kuril islands by never signing a peace treaty, Garretson said.

Korea claims it controlled Dokdo when the country was annexed by Japan. Therefore, the agreement to restore Korea included Dokdo. Japan claims the island was occupied by Japan prior to and separately from Korea.

There is no international body to rule on the disputes, unless both countries agree to go to the World Court. South Korea would be reluctant to do that since it believes the island isn’t even in dispute, Garretson said. And there’s no one to enforce World Court decisions. And if a country relinquishes its claim in one place, it sets a precedent for other territorial claims, which could be an issue for Japan.

Garretson concluded by saying it’s easier for countries to maintain the status quo, protesting disputes but doing nothing. As such, the protests and high emotions are likely to continue. “The territorial things get entangled with other political and nationalism issues,” Garretson said. “Because part of what defines a state is territory.”

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