The Liancourt Rocks, known also by the name ‘Dokdo’ in Korean, and ‘Takeshima’ in Japanese, are two tiny islets situated between Japan and the Korean Peninsula in the Sea of Japan. The islets have been the source of bilateral tension and conflict due to the fact that both Japan and the Republic of Korea claim sovereign title.
In a time of imperialist progress and expansionism, Japan incorporated Liancourt Rocks in its territory in 1905, well before the conclusion of the Shimonoseki and Eulsa treaties which ultimately left Korea deprived of the right to conduct foreign relations as a Protectorate of the Japanese Empire. This move is regarded as incorporation of ‘terra nullius’ in Japan, while it is regarded as a blatant and illegal annexation of Korean territory among Koreans. Both sides, therefore, hark back to 18th and 19th century documents to build their case.
An important basis of the argumentation is the body of maps being produced in the pre-modern period. The inaccurate, confusing and sometimes obviously erroneous mapmaking tradition makes this argumentation problematic. The maps lay a weak foundation as evidence for both sides in that seemingly all claims based on these can easily be countered by pointing to the interchanging of appellations to the islands and islets of the Sea of Japan. It is also important to be aware of the differences of the function the traditional map compared to a modern map. The modern map establishes a national territorial identity, while the traditional map lack this dimension. Nevertheless, we see a tendency to read old maps as if they convey claims of national territory and sovereignty.
In a time of confusion and ambiguous signals from the victorious Allied Powers regarding the territorial composition of Japan after the collapse of the Empire in 1945, the young state Republic of Korea, liberated from its colonial shackles, established a permanent presence of personnel on the Liancourt Rocks. This occupation has since been regularly protested by Japan, and bilateral agreements on the delineation of exclusive economic and fishery zones have been made without resolving the issue of sovereignty. The dispute, therefore, continue to be an element – and cause – of bilateral tension between ROK and Japan.