03.08.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Latest on Japanese Territorial Claim Conflicts


You may remember that debates surrounding the Dokdo islands are paramount in the South Korean-Japanese conflicts.

One’s mind drifts back to a poster on which Korean patriotic NGOs went to the Japanese embassy after the 2011 accident at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant.  A sympathetic message supporting victims of the tragedy was written in bold letters, but below in small print it said “But Dokdo is still ours.” And although the islands are now under tight ROK control (since 1954, South Korea has deployed a small police detachment to Dokdo), any attempts by Japan to challenge this cause diplomatic reprimands.

On March 24, 2020, the Japanese government approved 17 textbooks on history, social studies and geography for secondary schools, which “more clearly define Tokyo’s territorial claims over the South Korean Dokdo islands.” To be fair, the textbooks also contain similar descriptions of the Kuril Islands and the Senkaku Islands, which are at the center of territorial disputes with Russia and China, respectively.

These textbooks also indicate that the problem of victims of forced labor mobilization during World War II has already been resolved within the framework of the basic agreement on relations between Japan and Korea of 1965, and only two textbooks mention the problem of “comfort women.”

In this regard, on March 24, Japanese Ambassador Koji Tomita was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, where he was protesting about this situation and called on Tokyo to correct the content of textbooks, stressing that the Japanese side distorts, underestimates and omits specific historical facts.

On May 19, 2020, Hirohisa Soma, Senior Counselor-Envoy of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, Hirohisa Soma, was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, where Director of the Department of Asia and the Pacific, Kim Jong Han, protested the content of the Blue Book on Diplomacy for 2020.

The Blue Book of Diplomacy has been published annually by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1957. This document is a kind of reference book on the diplomatic situation and its prospects, on Japan’s position in the world, reflecting the official attitude of the Japanese government to various issues.

The book says that the Dokdo Islands are allegedly the territory of Japan “historically and in accordance with international law,” and that the ROK is supposedly “illegally occupying them.” In addition, the book argues that the term “sexual slavery” used in reference to wianbu is “contrary to the facts” and that South Korea agreed not to use that expression in a 2015 deal reached between the two countries to address women’s comfort issues. Kim Jong Han urged Tokyo to change the content of the document.  “We clearly state once again that the unjust claims of the Japanese government can in no way affect our sovereignty over Dokdo and that we will resolutely oppose any provocations on the islands”.

In the light of this, a much more important thing was forgotten, which only conservative media wrote about in Republic of Korea. Questions about Dokdo or comfort women are constantly covered by Japan, and Seoul’s reaction is also expected. But the fact that, unlike the versions of the last two years, Japan again began to call South Korea “an important neighbor” is much more important.

In the 2017 Blue Book, Japan called Korea “the most important neighbor sharing Japan’s strategic interests,” then there were no epithets at all, and the 2019 Blue Book described relations between the two countries as very difficult.

However, in parliamentary sessions in October 2019 and early 2020, Shinzo Abe twice named Seoul an important neighbor or an important ally.

In addition, Japan did not mention the incident – which then caused a surge of tension – when its reconnaissance aircraft flew over a South Korean warship and the latter aimed a fire control radar on it.

On the other hand, the Blue Book defends the 2019 decision to make it difficult for South Korean enterprises to import key materials used to make microchips, arguing that the move was necessary to adequately manage trade in dual-use products and technologies.

On June 2, the ROK hosted an annual exercise for the defense of the Dokdo Islands. These maneuvers have been conducted since 1986. Since 2003, they have been conducted twice a year, usually in June and December, although in December 2019 field exercises were replaced by computer simulations due to bad weather.

This time, eight ships and five aircraft, including F-15K fighters, took part in them, but they were not reported in the press in order to avoid aggravating tensions with Japan.  However, Tokyo immediately protested: Japanese Cabinet Secretary General Yoshihide Suga said the action was unacceptable and deeply regrettable.

On July 14, Director of the Department of Asia and the Pacific of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea Kim Jong Han summoned Hirohisa Soma, and the head of the International Military Cooperation Department of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea, Lee Won-Ik, summoned the military attaché of the Japanese Embassy in Republic of Korea, Matsumoto Takashi. This time, the Japanese diplomats were not protesting the Blue Book of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the similar in type “China White Paper on Defense” for 2020.

In a document approved by the Japanese Cabinet of Ministers, the Dokdo Islands, like the Kuril islands, are described as “disputed territories”, in connection with which Tokyo was called upon to withdraw the claims. “We strongly protest that Japan has repeatedly made unfair territorial claims against Dokdo, which is clearly our inalienable territory, historically, geographically and under international law, and we call for an immediate withdrawal of these claims,” said ministry spokesman Kim In Chol.

In addition, unlike the Blue Book, the White Paper remembered the plane incident. South Korea flatly rejected these claims as well, stating that the warship never used any tracking radars, as it was on a mission to rescue a North Korean fishing vessel drifting in the East Sea, but a Japanese patrol aircraft made threatening flights at low altitude.

Perhaps the audience will ask the question: “Why these senseless gestures?” – if you look at the author’s digests for past years, nothing changes. Japan makes claims, Seoul summons diplomats to the carpet. For other reasons, the opposite happens, and this is a very important point, based on which political decisions are made, especially in South Korea.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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