Northeast Asia is the site of the 21st century’s greatest geopolitical challenges. Cold War legacies, including the unresolved Korean War and the ambiguous status of Taiwan, and the return of China as a great power will test the durability of the existing international order. During this tumultuous time, it is in Japan and South Korea’s best interests to cooperate with each other as two U.S.-allied, democratic-capitalist societies striving to maintain regional stability and uphold the international status quo. Yet conflicts over strategically insignificant issues often sour relations between Japan and South Korea.
The diplomatic brawl over who has sovereignty over the Liancourt Rocks is one of these strategically insignificant issues that has a disproportionate negative impact on bilateral relations. The Liancourt Rocks, called “Takeshima” in Japan and “Dokdo” in South Korea, are a group of small islets located 211 km (114 nmi) from Honshu and 216 km (117 nmi) from the Korean Peninsula. The practical question of who has effective control – one of the key components of sovereignty – over the Liancourt Rocks is moot because South Korea has had effective control over the islands ever since Syngman Rhee unilaterally declared the “Peace Line” in 1952, and Japan is constitutionally prohibited from using force to settle international disputes. However, the normative issue of who ought to have sovereignty and control over the Liancourt Rocks continues to be a volatile issue in Japan-South Korea relations.
This case study analyzes how domestic politics intersect with the Liancourt Rocks dispute to sustain the issue as an impediment to strategic rapprochement between Japan and South Korea. It examines the politicization of this island dispute, specifically, why politicians on both sides of the Tsushima Strait perceive any benefit to raising the salience of an issue that they know will disrupt bilateral cooperation. By focusing on (1) three Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members’ botched attempt to visit Ulleung in August 2011 and (2) South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s landing on the Liancourt Rocks in August 2012, this paper argues that politicians visit the islands in pursuit of domestic political benefits – but that such attempts have high strategic costs.
This case study first analyzes the ultimate and proximate causes of the politicization of the Liancourt Rocks dispute, then outlines the consequences of politicization on the bilateral relationship. Finally, it concludes by suggesting that mainstream politicians should manage the dispute by reducing the salience of the Liancourt Rocks among the citizenry of both countries so that actions of individual extremists will no longer be rewarded.