[Interview] “Japan is now at a serious disadvantage” in Dokdo territorial dispute

Posted on : 2016-01-26 18:15 KST Modified on : 2016-01-26 18:15 KST
Korean-Japanese Dokdo researcher Park Byoung-sup says documents bolster SK’s case, but worries about the Japanese government’s increasing efforts to teach its own claim
Korean-Japanese researcher Park Byoung-sup (left) is awarded the Dokdo Research Prize by Kim Ho-sup
Korean-Japanese researcher Park Byoung-sup (left) is awarded the Dokdo Research Prize by Kim Ho-sup

If South Korea were to accept Japan’s proposal to let the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) settle the two countries’ territorial dispute over the island of Dokdo - called Takeshima in Japan - which country would the court side with?

While Japan may seem confident, it could never win on an empirical or logical basis, thinks Park Byoung-sup, 74, a Korean-Japanese researcher on the Dokdo issue.

“During the negotiations between South Korea and Japan to normalize their diplomatic relations - back in 1954, I think - envoys from the two countries were shuttled back and forth four times because of this issue. At the time, the South Korean government basically wasn’t prepared at all,” Park said.

“Back then, the Japanese government was pretty confident. They thought that, as long as they could bring the case to the International Court of Justice, they would win. But since then progress has been made on Dokdo research, and quite a few documents have been found that aren’t in Japan’s favor, including the Taejeonggwan note [a document drafted by the Japanese Great Council of State]. Given the documents that have come to light so far, Japan is now at a serious disadvantage.”

On Jan. 22, the Hankyoreh met with Park, who had come to Seoul to receive the 6th Dokdo Research Prize, awarded by the Northeast Asian History Foundation’s president Kim Ho-sup.

The Japanese government’s proposal to bring the territorial dispute over Dokdo before the ICJ is “just propaganda intended for the Japanese public,” Park said.

There is virtually no chance that the issue will be decided there. The case cannot even be tried without an agreement between the countries in question, and for the South Korean government - which has effective control of the island - to agree to this would be to acknowledge that Dokdo is an internationally contested area.

But since the Japanese far right is attempting to exploit this for domestic propaganda purposes, it is still necessary, many say, to demonstrate that the arguments advanced by the Japanese far right are groundless. It is in the same spirit that Park’s research is very significant.

This is also the background for the Northeast Asian History Foundation’s selection of Park as the winner of its contest.

“Over the past 20 years, Park has continued to study Dokdo and other historical conflicts between South Korea and Japan and suggested ways to resolve these conflicts. He has operated the website Half Moon Castle Communication (han.org/a/half-moon/), collected sources related to Dokdo, and published a large number of books and articles, including ‘A History of the Fishing Industry at Dokdo’ and ‘An Assessment of the An Yong-bok Incident,’” the foundation said in explaining why it had awarded the prize to Park.

Half Moon Castle Communication, which Park has been operating since 1995, contains materials that he has written and collected. He has systematically organized the materials into topics such as modern and contemporary history, the question of whether Jukdo and Dokdo are the same island, and ancient and modern history.

A book called “The Debate about Whether Jukdo and Dokdo Are the Same Island,” which Park coauthored with the late Seichu Naito, who was professor emeritus at Shimane University, was included on a recommended reading list by a Japanese library association.

“Even in Japan, there are a lot of people who have their doubts about the veracity of the claims made about Dokdo by the Japanese Foreign Ministry and other government bodies. Not all of them agree with the government. But the majority of Japanese have virtually no interest in the Dokdo issue,” Park said.

“Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs states on its homepage that ‘Takeshima is the sovereign territory of Japan,’ but the evidence for this is actually very weak. Despite this, no small number of Japanese take the ministry’s word for it.”

Park is worried by the fact that the Japanese government is focusing its efforts on education. He pointed out that Japan recently added its territorial claim to Dokdo to the websites and white papers of its Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense and also included this content in school textbooks.

“If Japan starts teaching the issue in schools, the number of Japanese who take for granted that Dokdo is Japanese territory will gradually increase, and the problem will become more severe in 10 or 20 years,” Park said.

The war that broke out between Argentina and the UK in 1982 over the territorial rights to the UK-controlled Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), which are located off the coast of Argentina, was the result of history education in Argentina, some suggest.

“The only solution is to tell people the truth,” Park said. He starts with two claims that Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes on its website; first, that the Japanese shogunate early during the Edo period granted the islands of Ulleungdo and Dokdo to a family called Hokihan; and that the shogunate forbade passage to Ulleungdo but did not forbid it to Dokdo.

By way of refuting these claims, Park marshals a wide variety of documents: official maps from the Japanese shogunate that mark Ulleungdo and Dokdo as the territory of the Joseon Dynasty (which ruled Korea at the time) in order to prevent Japanese from making the passage; a report by an investigator for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1869; and an 1877 document from the Japanese Great Council of State, the highest branch of government during the Meiji period, which describes Dokdo as not being Japanese territory.

“It’s important to let Japanese know the facts exactly as they are,” Park said once again. Two years ago, he even participated in a three-person debate with the president of Issuikai, a far-right group, and a researcher from the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), as part of a public symposium organized by Japanese civic groups about the territorial dispute over Dokdo.

During the debate, the president of Issuikai was “hardly able to make a single response,” Park recalled.

An analytical engineer in the field of gas chemistry, Park graduated with a Doctor’s degree from Tokyo University of Education (the predecessor of today’s University of Tsukuba). While working over the past thirty years, he has actively expressed his opinions - mostly online - about a variety of issues, including the comfort women, Japan’s responsibility for the war, reparations for the war, the Yasukuni Shrine, the history of Korea and Japan, and the issues of discrimination against Korean-Japanese and their human rights and citizenship. Since Shimane Prefecture launched Takeshima Day in 2005, Park has been focusing on the issue of Dokdo.

Park said that the most definite way to end Japan’s territorial claims to Dokdo is to find documents proving that “Seokdo,” an island that appeared in Edict No. 41 of the Korean Empire in Oct. 1900, is actually Dokdo. This edict changed the name of Ulleungdo to Uldo and defined the jurisdiction of the Uldo governor as including the entire island of Ulleung along with the islands of Jukdo and Seokdo. 

By Han Sung-dong, Culture correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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