Why Japan and South Korea Are Feuding Over a Cluster of Rocks

These volcanic outcrops pack a lot of trouble in a minuscule area. Korea-pool / AFP-Getty Images

The frenemies are at it again. Despite all their longstanding shared interests, Japan and South Korea just can't find a way past their long and bitter history. At present they're focusing their love-hate conflict on a desolate little cluster of volcanic outcrops jutting up from the Sea of Japan, roughly 210 kilometers across the water from either of the two countries' mainlands. Collectively known in Japan as Takeshima ("bamboo island"), in Korea as Dokdo ("rock island"), and in the West as the Liancourt Rocks (named after a French whaling vessel that narrowly avoided being wrecked there in 1849), the islets total less than 19 hectares in area. But in the minds of Japan and South Korea, they've grown large enough to encompass decades of unresolved grievances.

This isn't the first time the flyspeck islets have provoked a crisis. Back in April 2006, South Korea's then-president Roh Moo-hyun threatened force, sending gunboats to prevent Japanese coast-guard vessels from mapping the nearby seabed. According to a U.S. State Department cable disclosed by WikiLeaks, Washington feared that Seoul might "do something crazy." Thomas Schieffer, then America's ambassador to Tokyo, told Japan's vice foreign minister at the time that "the Koreans are behaving irrationally" and warned him that "everyone needs to back off." The Koreans and Japanese finally did as he urged, and the situation cooled down.

This time, however, things have turned so messy that neither side may be able to back down from its nationalist posturings. In early August, South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak crossed a red line for the Japanese when he became the first leader of his nation ever to visit the disputed islands. Japan's resentment only worsened the next day, when South Korea's national soccer team defeated the Japanese in the bronze-medal match at the London Games—and then, after the final whistle, a South Korean midfielder stood on the pitch and hoisted a sign declaring "Dokdo is our territory." (Although the player was barred from the medal ceremony and his award was withheld pending an investigation of the incident by the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, soccer's international governing body, he has since been exempted from compulsory military service and named to his country's World Cup team.)

Four days after Lee's surprise trip to the rocks, the president delivered an even more stinging slap to Japan. Out of the blue, he announced that if Emperor Akihito ever expects to visit South Korea, he should first apologize for Japan's colonial rule of the peninsula before and during World War II. Many Japanese regarded Lee's words as an insult to the emperor, and Japan's legislators once again asserted their country's claim to the islets. Last week Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda infuriated the South Koreans on another sore topic, saying there's no evidence that proves Japan's imperial army forced Korean women to work as sex slaves. This week South Korea intends to hold military exercises on the disputed islets, and Japan is pondering whether to scrap a currency-swap deal with Seoul.

The falling-out is cause for concern not only in Seoul and Tokyo but in Washington as well. Both are vital U.S. trading partners and America's most important allies in Asia, but more than that: cooperation between them is essential in keeping North Korea in check. And yet their quarrel has grown downright juvenile. When Noda sent Lee a letter of complaint, the South Korean president declined to accept it, instead returning it via a Korean diplomat stationed in Tokyo. The Koreans later mailed Noda's letter to the Japanese Foreign Ministry. "I'm sorry, but they're behaving like kids in a scuffle," said a disgusted Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, Japan's senior vice foreign minister. In the end, Tokyo accepted the letter's return, rather than "tarnish the dignity of Japanese diplomacy," as Noda put it—advising South Korean officials at the same time to cool their jets.

Japanese officials struggled to make sense of Lee's actions. The Korean president had always been viewed as a pragmatist, more interested in building a "future-minded relationship" with South Korea's third-largest trading partner than in dwelling on past misdeeds. "What happened to the guy?" Noda blurted out during a parliamentary session. The most popular explanation points to Lee's approval ratings, which had sunk to a pitiful 17 percent. There's a vicious cycle that has prevailed ever since the advent of democratic rule in the late 1980s. Every five years, a new president sweeps into office, pledging better relations with Japan. But by his third or fourth year in office, the administration gets ensnared in a corruption scandal, and the president becomes a lame duck. (In July, Lee found it necessary to apologize publicly for a scandal involving his brother.) To rescue what's left of his presidency, he resorts to anti-Japan rhetoric, and relations with Tokyo deteriorate—a trend that has grown stronger, especially in the past decade.

Lee, who happens to have been born in Osaka, may have felt a particular need to prove he's not "pro-Japanese"—one of the most poisonous accusations in South Korea's political vocabulary. As a measure of how deep that distrust runs, Lee's national loyalties recently came into question because he seemed ready to sign off on a deal to help the two countries share military intelligence about their common enemy, North Korea. And in fact his standing in the opinion polls rose by roughly 10 points after his visit to the rocks. At the same time, however, Lee's trip raises questions about his integrity as a statesman. With only six months remaining in his term, why would he jeopardize one of his country's most important bilateral relationships in exchange for a mere blip in his approval ratings? Even members of his conservative Saenuri Party openly questioned whether his tactics were in South Korea's national interest. "The president's office is resorting to populism," said lawmaker Choi Kyung-hwan, chief of staff to presidential candidate Park Geun-hye. "And the next president is going to have to pay the price."

If the current feud is messy, the history of the islets is even messier. Although both sides claim to have documents dating back centuries proving that the rocks belong to them, they insist that the other side's documents actually describe some other islands in the Sea of Japan. And the recent record is no less murky. In its 1951 peace treaty with the Allied Forces, Japan relinquished much of the Korean territory it had occupied during the war. But Tokyo argues that the islets were exempt from the deal: the Japanese declared them part of Shimane Prefecture in 1905—five years before they annexed the Korean Peninsula. The Koreans see it differently. In 1952, then-President Syngman Rhee unilaterally took control of the islets by declaring a maritime demarcation line, and two years later, Seoul sent troops to occupy the Liancourt Rocks. Tokyo calls that an "illegal occupation."

Tokyo has proposed for decades that the two countries file the case for arbitration by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Last week Seoul once again refused. The Koreans say there is no territorial dispute because the islets are theirs, and agreeing to a legal arbitration would only contradict this logic. But according to the Japanese, this only shows that deep down, Seoul suspects it might lose. "The Koreans are insecure about their claims under international law," contends Hideshi Takesada, a Japanese professor of Asian studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. "That's why they feel the need to take measures to strengthen their control of the island."

In politically apathetic Japan, Takeshima is usually a low-profile issue, not a cause for flag-burnings or boycotts. For the Koreans, on the other hand, Dokdo is a sacred place that must be protected at all costs, a proud emblem of their independence from Japan's colonial rule. "Besides being a territorial issue, Dokdo is about history," says former foreign minister Song Min-soon. "To the Korean people, Dokdo bears a special, symbolic meaning—it symbolizes the 36-year occupation by the Japanese. Whenever Koreans hear of the Japanese government's claim [over Dokdo], they see it as [proof of] Japan's unapologetic attitude."

That's one more reason behind Lee's trip: he's said it was meant to teach Tokyo a lesson. As South Koreans see the situation, Japan hasn't adequately atoned for the acts it committed in the first half of the 20th century—including, according to Seoul, the forcible employment of Korean women in military brothels. Lee was under pressure from the Constitutional Court of Korea, which found last year that the government isn't doing enough to make Tokyo compensate the comfort women.

The South Koreans say the Japanese just don't get it. The Japanese respond that the Koreans are unreasonably linking two entirely separate issues: rightful ownership of the Liancourt Rocks and justice for the comfort women. As Noda recently expressed it, speaking to the press corps in Tokyo, "The Takeshima problem is not an issue that should be discussed in the context of historical interpretation."

It's not that Japan is oblivious to its dark past, or unrepentant. Although the country's right-wing politicians may dispute the details of its imperial past, most Japanese recognize that many terrible acts were committed in their country's name. Nevertheless, even those ordinary people are running out of patience with Seoul's demands for apologies. As they see it, Japanese prime ministers have apologized over and over. The Japanese government actually set up a special fund back in 1995 to compensate the comfort women. It ended in failure after right-wing activists in South Korea persuaded several former comfort women not to accept the money, claiming that it wasn't an "official" compensation or apology from Japan.

Ordinary Japanese are baffled by the Koreans' attachment to the islets. Since 2005, when Seoul began allowing tourists onto the islets, visits—pilgrimages, some say—have become hugely popular. Last year alone, some 180,000 people made the arduous trip. In 2010, civic groups, together with the Korean Federation of Teachers' Associations, declared Oct. 25 to be Dokdo Day, an annual occasion for teaching the nation's schoolchildren to love the remote island outpost. (Japan's Shimane Prefecture celebrates a Takeshima Day). Broadcasters go so far as reporting on the weather there, and some television stations end their daily broadcasts with a video clip of Dokdo as the national anthem plays.

Activists and political organizers have been holding "Dokdo awareness" events around South Korea. At a July gathering in Seoul promoting corporate social responsibility, small children were encouraged to write "I love Dokdo" on cookies. And after Lee's August visit, a group of singers, actors, and college students braved the strong currents and made a 220-kilometer relay swim to the rocks. So far the demonstrations haven't matched the extremes seen in March 2005, when a pair of protesters each chopped off one of their fingers outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, and another Korean set himself on fire. But the sense of outrage has not gone away. Last week a protester in Seoul was arrested for throwing two plastic bottles filled with feces at the embassy. (He reportedly turned out to be a man who had previously severed one of his fingers and mailed it to the embassy.)

In the face of such nationalistic fervor, the South Korean government can scarcely back down. In fact, Lee's visit to the rocks has raised the ante for any future South Korean presidents who may seek to prove their conservative credentials. Conservative presidential candidate Park, the daughter of assassinated dictator Park Chung-hee, has already said she will consider visiting the islets if she's elected in December. In the context of South Korean politics, her family background is a powerful incentive to prove herself 100 percent Korean, untainted by "pro-Japanese" attitudes: her father was a cadet at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy during the war, and two decades later, as South Korea's president, he's the one who normalized relations with Japan. His daughter can scarcely afford to give ground on the islets, even if she thinks it's the sensible thing to do.

There seems to be no way out, at least for the foreseeable future. Tokyo and Seoul could conceivably decide to shelve the issue and muddle through, as they did after they normalized relations some 50 years ago. It wouldn't really solve the problem, but at least it seems doable. Alternatively, an exasperated Park Chung-hee is said to have suggested a more drastic approach at the time of the normalization talks: just blast the islets into oblivion. Neither government is likely to buy that idea. But if those rocks are going to keep causing so much trouble between the two Asian frenemies, it might be the only real solution.

With Toshiyuki Chiku in Tokyo and Jinna Park in Seoul