Today, South Korea set up an 18-ship naval blockade around a disputed group of islands, warning of a "physical clash" as two Japanese coastguard ships steam towards them.
The islands are to be found in the middle of the Sea of Japan roughly half way between the two countries. The Koreas know the islands as Dokdo and the Japanese call them Takeshima. Woolly Days’ atlas has a third name for them: Liancourt Rocks. The islands got this name from a French whaler "Le Liancourt" which visited them in 1849. The Russians named them Manalai and Olivutsa Rocks in 1854 and a year later the English got in on the act calling them the Hornet Rocks.
So why all this fuss over these multi-named but tiny islands one hundred and fifty years later? To quote a serial philanderer, it’s the economy, stupid. But that is only partially correct. The Koreans and the Japanese have a long history of political and military disputes and Dokdo/Takeshima (/Liancourt/Manalai/Hornet etc.) is, along with the recompense of the so-called ‘comfort women’, one of the most important unresolved squabbles from the Second World War.
I said the islands are roughly half way between the two countries but Korea is slightly closer being 217km away compared to the 250km distance to Japan. And though there is no fresh water on the islands, there are approximately 50 Koreans living there working as police, government officials, lighthouse keepers and one unattached couple who live off the fishing.
And it is the fact that they are rich fishing grounds that makes the islands economically important. There is also possible reserves of natural gas though none has yet been found. The Koreans have placed an Exclusive Economic Zone around the island and the Japanese are not happy.
The rocks are also important for military strategic reasons. They served many times as a military base, most notably in the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese claimed the islands in that year of 1905 using the doctrine ‘terra nullius’ (familiar to Australians as the point of law that led to the native title legislation.) They remained a Japanese possession until the end of the Second World War. The Americans excluded the rocks from Japanese administrative authority in 1946. However the exclusion order did not clearly state who should take over the rule of the rocks. Indeed, the US maintains a policy of non-recognition for claims by either side to this day. The South Koreans claimed it in 1952 towards the end of the Korean War but the Japanese fought skirmishes in a vain effort to re-establish control in 1953. The incident ended with the sinking of a Japanese ship. In 1954, the Korean government rejected a Japanese offer to seek arbitration at the International Court of Justice. Instead the Koreans built a lighthouse and helicopter pad. Subsequently they built a radar station enabling them to track the naval forces of Russia, Japan, and North Korea winding their various ways through the Sea of Japan. The status of the island was omitted from the 1965 “Basic Relations Treaty” which normalised the relationship between the two countries.
Today, despite the fact that they are major trading partners, both sides still vigorously claim the islands. This month, the Japanese dispatched two ships to conduct a maritime survey near the islands without first formally notifying the Korean government. In response, the Koreans dispatched eighteen patrol ships and warned Japan not to go through with its plans.
Last heard (April 19, 2006), the Japanese convoy were still on course, ignoring Seoul’s calls to turn back. Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe, claimed that there was "no problem" whereas South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said "We don't want the situation to worsen, but we will take all steps to protect the sovereignty over Dokdo.”
Another Korean spokesman warned ominously "in case of any physical clash, Japan should assume full responsibility."