Feature: South Korea bolstering hold over disputed islets

Feature: South Korea bolstering hold over disputed islets

Hong Se-heum watched with a mixture of relief and anxiety as hundreds of South Korean tourists waved national flags in sheer joy and posed for photographs as they spilled out onto this tiny islet, which has been the center of a territorial dispute with Japan. “I felt a sense of relief after landing on Dokdo because it seems well protected and effectively controlled”, said Han, an Illinois-based businessman.

He was referring to the coast guard contingent deployed on the contested islet that has a makeshift port, a heliport, a lighthouse, and a two-story building for the guards equipped with heavy weapons. South Korean coast guard vessels are also patrolling around the islets to keep Japanese ships away from the disputed waters.

“But I am also concerned that Japan may renew its territorial claim any time and use its diplomatic clout to boost its international position over the issue”, Hong said. Hong, who emigrated to the United States decades ago, said many South Koreans who have resettled in foreign countries are worried about Japan’s possible aggressive campaign for Dokdo. “We would join forces to preserve Dokdo against Japan’s encroachment. That’s why we are here”, he said.

Hong was among about 120 South Koreans doing business overseas who gathered on the islets in a high-profile campaign to help bolster Seoul’s sovereignty in the face of Japan’s repeated territorial claim. In a declaration, the businessmen from 45 countries — from Europe to South America and the Middle East — said they would make their best effort to safeguard the islets. “Dokdo is an integral part of South Korean territory historically and legally”, the declaration said. In a rally they waved South Korean national flags as well as flags of the countries they reside in, shouting, “Dokdo is Korean land!”

The businessmen, mostly born in North Gyeongsang Province that rules Dokdo, vowed to join hands to drum up international support to cope with Japan’s possible diplomatic drive. Lee Cheol-woo, the province’s vice governor for political and economic affairs, said the campaign by the businessmen overseas would help boost Seoul\\\’s position in the sovereignty dispute.

“The visit to Dokdo by the businessmen from around the globe is a highly symbolic event to demonstrate South Korea’s solidarity against Japan’s unreasonable territorial claim”, Lee said in an interview with UPI. “We will arrange other high-profile events to boost South Korea’s sovereignty”, he said.

Dokdo, a cluster of two main islets and dozens of attached rocks and reefs that lies about halfway between the Korean peninsula and Japan’s largest island, Honshu, has long been a source of dispute between the two neighbors. Japan calls the islets Takeshima. The most recent eruption of hostilities occurred in 2005 when lawmakers in Japan’s Shimane prefecture, the closest to Dokdo, passed a resolution designating a Takeshima Day to bolster Japan’s claim.

Worsening ties, Japan had attempted to launch a maritime exploration project in waters near Dokdo, which South Korea considered a “grave infringement of territorial sovereignty”. Further angering South Koreans was the Japanese government’s approval of social studies textbooks that claim that “Takeshima is illegally occupied by South Korea”.

Both nations use their long histories to justify their claim over the uninhabited islets. In 1905, Japan says Shimane prefecture passed a municipal notice incorporating the disputed islets as part of its jurisdiction, saying it was held by nobody. But South Korea says its records show it has owned the rocky outcrops since AD 512 and had ruled them since the 15th century. Korea regained independence from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule, taking back sovereignty over land including Dokdo and other islands around the Korean peninsula.

In a bid to boost its control, the South Korean government has allowed citizens and foreigners to visit Dokdo since two years ago when the fight with Japan was heating up, in a turnaround from its long-standing “policy of neglect” to prevent the issue from escalating into a full-scale territorial dispute. Some 300 tourists are traveling to the islets every day, though only half of them could land because heavy waves often keep the boats away. During summer vacation season, as many as 1,200 people tour the islets in a day.

“I hope more and more tourists will visit Dokdo to show the islets remain firmly in South Korean hands”, said Choi Tae-yol, the captain of a ferry that runs between Dokdo and the nearby bigger island of Ulleungdo. “As a captain, I am proud of bringing tourists to Dokdo, South Korea’s territory which had long been off-limits”, he said.

But Japan is unlikely to drop its territorial claim to Dokdo because huge gas hydrate deposits have been discovered around the contested waters. The Ulleung Basin has estimated reserves of 600 million tons of gas hydrate, solid ice-like deposits of water and natural gas, worth US$150 billion. Gas hydrates are located deep underwater where cold temperatures and extreme pressure cause natural gas to condense into semisolid form, according to Seoul’s energy officials.

UPI Asia Online
Date : Oct. 11, 2007
Writer : LEE JONG-HEON

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