It’s good to see that the Japanese are dredging up the question of Tokto again as it gives me a chance to write a topical post on the subject rather than just a random rant. For those who want to know, Tokto (or the Liancourt Rocks as they are quaintly known in English) refers to a collection of rocky outcrops in the sea east of the Korean peninsula (thus between said peninsula and the Japanese archipelago) claimed by both Korea and Japan but occupied by Korean troops. Lost Nomad has a nice picture, which while making Tokto look as pretty as possible, shows the general uninhabitability of this collection of rocks.
So, we have some rocks in the middle of the sea with very little strategic significance (no harbour, no landing strip, little in the way of fresh water I assume) but for some reason they are important enough for the Japanese ambassador in Korea to say baldly:
“There exists a clear difference in views between South Korea and Japan over the issue of Takeshima [Tokto],’’ Ambassador Toshiyuki Takano was quoted as saying in a meeting with foreign reporters in Seoul. “It is historically and legally Japan’s territory.”
They are also important enough for the response in Korea to be one of outrage, even in a left-leaning newspaper such as Hankyoreh:
They have essentially invaded our territory; they just haven’t done it with gun and sword… Japan’s doublefaced, shameless behavior should be tolerated no longer. Japan needs to be clearly warned that depending on the situation, Korean-Japanese relations could need a complete reevaluation.
So what is it that gets such a broad spectrum of people from the Korean [nationalist] left to Japanese government officials so excited about these rocks? Well, before I get to that I have to admit that the point of this post is really to plug an excellent article by Han Kyu-han (in Korean) that appeared in Ta Hamkkelast August at the time of the last minor blow-up over Tokto.
The author does an excellent job of looking at the actual history of Tokto and the interest of Koreans in it. He shows that attempts by nationalist historians to claim that Tokto was considered to be ‘Korean’ territory back in the Silla period (668-935 AD) are highly spurious. The references cited from the Samguk sagi history do not refer to Tokto but to the much bigger island of Ullûngdo and even that wasn’t considered part of the Silla kingdom but as a separate country (named Usan’guk, which bizarrely sounds like ‘land of the umbrellas’ in modern Korean). Later kingdoms on the Korean peninsula generally continued to show a lack of knowledge or interest in Tokto and at the end of the Chosôn dynasty when renowned patriot Min Yông-hwan saw the islets he called them “Japanese islands”.
Han points out that the real interest in Tokto began in the 1950s under Syngman Rhee when a fierce fishing war developed between Japan and South Korea. Apparently, between 1947 and 1962 some 282 Japanese fishing boats were seized, around 3500 Japanese fishermen were detained and eight were killed. So the interest in Tokto has to be understood as part of the process of formation of South Korea’s modern nation state. More precisely, the collection of rocks in the middle of the sea is important to the Korean ruling class as a nationalist symbol that can always be revived to turn people’s attention toward old anti-Japanese feelings. Although the Japanese state is somewhat different to South Korea (as an erstwhile coloniser rather than a post-colonial nationalist regime), the Japanese ruling class seems to view Tokto in much the same way: as a means for mobilising nationalist sentiment. As Han puts it:
The rulers of both South Korea and Japan consistently use the Tokto problem as a means of expanding and reproducing nationalist feelings. South Korean leaders are constantly promoting the fear that Japan is about to attack Tokto at any moment. But this is nothing more than ideology.
Actually, as he points out, previous South Korean governments have not always shown that much patriotic love for Tokto - during negotiations with the Japanese in the 1960s, Kim Jong-pil apparently offered blow it up as a solution.
This is not, of course, to minimise the dangers of Japan’s recent turn to the right and its attempts to rebuild itself as a major military power (particularly with its participation in the Iraq quagmire, outlined brilliantly by Gavan McCormack in NLR 29). But the only way for Koreans to fight this is to ignore the nationalist rhetoric peddled by politicians and commentators and practise solidarity with ordinary Japanese people who will also suffer at the hands of a new era of Japanese militarism.