The ICAS Lectures


American Responsibility in Korea and Japan's Island Dispute

Alexis Dudden

ICAS Fall Symposium

October 11, 2012
United States House Rayburn Office Building Room B 318
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20515

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Biographic sketch & Links: Alexis Dudden

American Responsibility in Korea and Japan's Island Dispute

Alexis Dudden

Events of the recent months have made it abundantly clear that what Asians know as the history problems are security problems. The term "history problems" captures the contested histories of Japan's empire and wartime actions between 1900-1945; it centers now on the region's territorial disputes, the shards of land - tiny islands - left ambiguous in the 1952 San Francisco Treaty, which came about under American direction. Different from other elements of the history problems - the Nanjing massacre or the former sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army, for example - these islands have very little human history at stake. As a result, they allow all those who engage in the history wars enormous liberties to tell their most desired story. Because of this, all of Japan's disputed territories - the islands disputed with China, with Korea, with Russia - now stand as the pre-eminent objects and markers with which to claim the past for future control of the region.

Recent developments in the Law of the Sea mean that these territorial disputes mean something different for Tokyo than for the other nations involved. Although the law would guarantee the same privileges to each party, for Japan guaranteed sovereign control over its disputed territories - Diaoyutai/Senkaku, Dokdo/Takeshima, the Kuriles/Northern Territories - could expand Japan territorially to the extent that it would become the world's sixth largest nation, including the exclusive claims to the ocean floor that the law provides. In this mix, for Japan to lose even one of its current disputes would jeopardize them all; it is a zero sum game from which no politician can back down. Tensions are only rising and the potential for violence increasingly likely.

Washington has - and continues - to maintain that "cool heads" should prevail, and that the nations involved "should work it out amongst themselves." The problem with this position is that not only is it no longer tenable because the disputes are on the streets and cannot be controlled in closed-door session as they long have been. Worse, it is dishonest. Washington became an involved party in these disputes at their post-1945 moment of creation through writing the territories in or out of the San Francisco Treaty. We do not need to fear this history; nor do we need to apologize for it. To ignore it, however, only furthers the cyclical nature of these disputes, fanning revanchist nationalisms and cementing them as mainstays of political posturing all around.

The best place for Washington to start is with the dispute between Seoul and Tokyo. Both nations focus their claims on a 1905 moment - the early days of Japan's whole-scale takeover of Korea - yet it is clear when Japan Coast Guard helicopters zoom in and South Korean F-15s rev up that 1905 is just a ruse for the present. None of this is in Washington's interests. To begin, for any non-violent solution to come about with regards to North Korea's missile program, we need to know that our allies - South Korea and Japan - are at all times working together. On top of this, we have separate security treaties with each ally, and although one is a treaty of mutual defense and the other a treaty of co-operation, what would happen if one side tested America's preference? If a young officer on one side tried to impress a superior through firing the first shot?

Instead of wasting time on this imaginary scenario of devastating loss, Washington could wield its unique and unquestionable power in the region in a productive new way by addressing America's role in creating the standoff between our allies. One approach would open up the long history of American involvement in Japan's colonization of Korea; it is likely wisest, however, to begin in 1945 when the United States victoriously enter the region by defeating Japan.

In the radically shifting post-1945 world, the United States dismembered Japan's once vast empire and returned the country - Japan - to what it looked like in the late 1860s. As soon as General MacArthur's occupying forces moved into the area in September 1945 Japanese of varying interest groups lobbied to hold onto whatever they could. The islands now in question between Tokyo and Seoul appear throughout the occupation years in memos and on maps with American voices intentionally or not taking up Japanese and Korean claims. It can be said in general that overall American military maps located the islands under the control of U.S. military's Korean command, while Tokyo's claims found voice through the American diplomats working there who often relayed them verbatim back to the State Department in Washington.

Other Allies were involved in the San Francisco Treaty process, too - particularly Britain - which took a far more punitive view of how to redraw Japan's geography on top of demanding that Japan pay reparations at the time. In the end, of course, the American approach dominated in no small part because by the time the treaty was signed in September 1951 (and in force in April 1952) a new reality dominated the region: the Korean War. By this time, the islands disputed between Seoul and Tokyo today had a wholly new and different value to Washington: immediately after the war, American pilots out of Kadena base began using them for target practice; and soon after war began in Korea they became vital to U.S. pilots for lightening their payloads while returning south from runs over North Korea. As the San Francisco Treaty came into being during all of this, the strategic value of these rocks became far more important to Washington than choosing between Japanese and Korean claims; moreover, the final treaty document would table ownership to accommodate another concern: what if northern forces grabbed it and the island fell into communist hands?

Different scholars cite different sources from these years - 1945 through the mid- 1950s after the South Korean government of then President Syngman Rhee established a lighthouse and sent soldiers to man the islands for Korea (as the condition pretty much has remained to this day) - to demonstrate that Washington was variously pro-Korean or pro-Japanese to prove their desired point. More productive - and more useful for moving this problem forward - is to look at what actually happened which is that Washington knowingly chose neither side in order to accommodate ITS interests at the time. American planners did what they did at the time not so much out of duplicity but rather at once out of contingency and expediency, depending on which future one viewed for the rocks at the time.

Tabling sovereignty over these tiny rocks made sense to American planners at the time. This is clearly what happened because unlike numerous other islands in the region this one is left blank in the treaty despite its known quantity. Yet, the treaty's absence of named ownership over these small islands between Korea and Japan - coupled with American determination to avoid the subject since - has allowed a once relatively manageable disagreement to become a truly volatile situation today. Instead of Washington's continuing to urge "cool-heads" and for "our allies to work this out amongst themselves," therefore, America might productively gain credibility for its desired Asian rebalancing by openly addressing its very powerful mark in the history of the history problems.

If Washington works first with its allies - South Korea and Japan - then working regionally will follow. By beginning with American history, we could open new possibilities for discussion and policy creativity: what is the best value of these islands today? Washington continues to shelve their discussion, yet 2012 proves that this only guarantees them as sites of virulent nationalist impulse. Surely a better solution - perhaps as locations of international green energy cooperation and development - is available. To begin, Washington must enter the fray as an involved but unafraid party. It is time for a major speech about the United States' role in Asia on a number of fronts; history - American history - must be at its center. We - Americans - have everything to gain by addressing our past in Asia straightforwardly and from the top; we have much to lose by leaving it blank.

This page last updated October 13, 2012 jdb