The ICAS Lectures
American Responsibility in Korea and Japan's Island Dispute
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
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