Dokdo, the Beautiful Island of Korea

By Jongyeop Jeong, 12th Grade

“Dokdo was the first Korean territory to fall victim to Japanese aggression.” 

– Pyon Yong-tae, Minister of Foreign Affairs Republic of Korea, October 28, 1954.

Commonly known as Liancourt Rocks in the west -named after Le Liancourt, a French whaling ship that came across the island in 1849- Dokdo is a Korean island that, according to Japan, has been at the center of a “diplomatic dispute” for centuries between the two nations. Under international law, Dokdo is an essential part of Korean territory, historically and geographically. There is no such thing as a territorial dispute surrounding Dokdo; thus, this is not a matter to be resolved through diplomatic negotiations or judicial settlement. This is the South Korean Government’s primary position on Dokdo: “The government of the Republic of Korea exercises Korea’s irrefutable territorial sovereignty over Dokdo. The government will deal firmly and resolutely with any provocation and will continue to defend Korea’s territorial integrity over Dokdo.”

Currently, Korea has effective control over Dokdo, but the Japanese government claims sovereignty of the island under the name Takeshima. Dokdo stands for Solitary Island in Korea, while Takeshima stands for Bamboo Islands in Japan. The island comprises two main islands – Seodo and Dongdo in Korean, Nishi-jima and Higashi-jima in Japanese – meaning western island and eastern island, respectively, with 89 additional surrounding islets. The island is 216.8 km from Hanbando (Korean peninsula) and 211 km from Honshu (Japan’s mainland); it’s 87.4 km from Korea’s nearest land mass, Ulleungdo, and 157.5 km away from Japan’s closest territory, the Oki Islands.

Map showing the distance between Dokdo and the nearest island from both countries.

Dokdo is a land of high value.

First, although it is a small and rocky islet, it significantly expands Korean territory and airspace. This allows it to play a vital role in national defense as a coast guard base in the East Sea. Second, it is an ecological powerhouse. It has an extraordinary biodiversity, sheltering around 60 plant species, 130 insect species, and 160 bird species, many of which are endemic to the island. Its marine life is also rich in organisms due to plankton-rich seawater, including different species of fish, shellfish, marine algae, and crustaceans. This makes it an excellent fishing ground for fishermen. Lastly, Dokdo serves as a shelter for migratory birds, like the Larus crassirostris, which is classified as Korea’s Natural Monument No. 336. (P.s. For better details regarding species in Dokdo, especially plants, please check out the first two references in the bibliography).         

However, the “dispute” around Dokdo didn’t begin for its value. It started in the early 20th century, before WWII, when Japan waged war against Russia, driven by imperialist ambitions – to get control over the Korean peninsula and Manchuria. Dokdo was ideally located for Japan to satisfy its military requirements in case of potential East Sea maritime encounters with Russia. Soon, Japan illegally incorporated Dokdo as an outpost to watch Russian naval fleets, calling it a terra nullius, a nobody’s land, through the Shimane Prefecture Public Notice No. 40 (1905). This came in handy in the end, as they obtained secret information through the watchtower and successfully attacked Russia’s Baltic Fleet. This illegal incorporation was executed privately, through a public notice of a mere provincial government, not that of the central government.

Nevertheless, Korean documents tell an entirely different story, showing that the Japanese’s assumption that Dokdo was an unoccupied land was utterly wrong.

Historical shreds of Korea’s evidence that reaffirm Korea’s sovereignty over Dokdo go back to the early 6th century, during the Korean Three Kingdoms period, when Usan-guk (Ulleungdo and Dokdo) was conquered by general Ichan Isabu and subjugated by Silla. This remains in the Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Samguksagi (1145), the first book to file facts about Ulleungdo and Dokdo. This is verified by the Reference Compilation of Documents of Korea (1770), an encyclopedia of the cultural system of Joseon, which states, “Ulleung (Ulleungdo) and Usan (Dokdo) are both territories of Usan-guk.” Moreover, Sejong Sillok, Jir (1454), the Geography Section of the Annals of King Sejong’s Reign, precisely pinpoints the location of Dokdo: “The two islands of Usan (Dokdo) and Mureung (Ulleungdo) are not located far apart from each other so Dokdo is visible from Ulleungdo on a clear day.” More recent evidence is the Imperial Decree No. 41 (1900), where Emperor Gojong stipulated that “Ulleungdo should be renamed as Uldo, and all of Ulleungdo, Jukdo, and Seokdo (Dokdo) should be placed under the jurisdiction of Uldo’s governor.”




(a) Samguksagi (1145), (b) Sejong Sillok, Jir (1454), and (c) Imperial Decree No. 41 (1900).

However, unlike ancient Korean documents that justify the territorial claim of Dokdo, Japanese documents never claimed title to Dokdo before 1905; instead, they emphasize that Dokdo is not part of Japanese territory. For instance, the Tottori- han’s Submission (1695) indicated that Takeshima (Ulleungdo) and Matsushima (Dokdo) weren’t part of Japanese land in answer to the Edo Shogunate’s inquiry about whether Ulleungdo was a part of the Tottori-han, a Japanese domain during the Edo era. The context behind this confirmation of Japan’s denial of the property of Dokdo stems in 1693, where An Yong-bok and Park Eodun, both Korean fishermen, were abducted and taken to Japan by Japanese fishermen working for the Murakawa and Oya families when they were fishing in the seas near Ulleungdo. This incident created tension, the Ulleungdo Dispute, between Joseon and Japan over the owner of these islands – which was resolved after the Tottori-han’s Submission. The Edo Shogunate authoritatively acknowledged Ulleungdo as the territory of Joseon after the confirmation that these islands didn’t belong to Japan, canceling the so-called “Takeshima (Ulleungdo) Passage License” on January 28, 1696, and prohibiting the Japanese’s voyage to Ulleungdo.

Nevertheless, Japanese fishermen kept crossing the borders and fishing around the islands. This time, An Yong-bok sailed to Japan instead of getting abducted to chase out these illegal fishermen’s activity. The Memorandum on the Arrival of a Boat from Joseon in 1696, a document written by a Japanese official during his investigation, records that An Yong-bok informed that Ulleungdo and Dokdo belonged to Gangwon-do, a province of Joseon.

Moreover, in 1877, as a result of consultations regarding the Ulleungdo Dispute with the government of Joseon, the Dajokan, the top administrative body of Japan at the time, ordered the Japanese Ministry of Home Affairs as follows: “Regarding Takeshima (Ulleungdo) and one other island (Dokdo) about which an inquiry was submitted, bear in mind that our country (Japan) has nothing to do with them.” Known as The Dajokan Order, historical evidence that Japan admitted that Ulleungdo and Dokdo belong to Joseon.

Only recently, Japan changed its position that Dokdo has always belonged to Japan. Japan’s initial claim was that they incorporated Dokdo because the island was terra nullius, as mentioned in the Shimane Prefecture Public Notice No. 40. Nevertheless, as stated in the Japanese Diplomatic Correspondence (1953), “the present Takeshima was known to Japan in olden times by the name of Matsushima, and considered as an integral part of her territory,” they now claim that the island has always been a part of its inherent territory. This abrupt shift in attitude appears to be an admission that the pre-WWII document was an ineffective notice issued as part of Japan’s ongoing aggression against Korea, making it invalid under international law. From a no-one’s land to an inherent land that was part of Japan all along. Isn’t this assertion contradictory and irresponsible? 

After WWII, defeated Japan was expelled from all territories it had conquested following the post-war arrangements made at Cairo (1943) and Potsdam (1945) Conferences. Additionally, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Index Number (SCAPIN) 677 issued in 1946 unequivocally declares Dokdo to be placed under Korea’s administrative jurisdiction: “…Japan is defined to include … excluding (a) Utsuryo (Ulleung) Island, Liancourt Rocks (Take) and Quelpart (Saishu or Cheju) Island …” This SCAPIN also prohibited Japanese vessels or personnel from approaching closer than 12 nautical miles to Dokdo.

Map of SCAPIN No. 677 that includes Take (Dokdo) as Korean territory

Other evidence frequently used by Japan is the Treaty of San Francisco, a treaty where Japan’s imperial power officially came to an end and provided compensation to countries who had suffered by them during the war; this included the return of lands taken by violence. The draft for this treaty went through multiple modifications before the final publication. In the draft, between March 19, 1947, and November 2, 1949, Dokdo was designated as Korean territory, but from December 8, 1949, it was Japanese territory. Finally, from the draft dated August 7, 1950, Dokdo was excluded from the treaty. The final draft written in 1951 states that Japan recognizes the independence of Korea and renounces “Korea, including the islands of Quelpart (Jeju Island), Port Hamilton (Geomun-do) and Dagelet (Ulleungdo).” Japan claims that since Dokdo is excluded from the list, and although Japan approved Korea’s independence, Dokdo is claimed to be Japanese territory because the treaty does not include the transfer of domain incorporated into Japan before the forced annexation. However, this is a mere misinterpretation of this preamble. The Treaty of San Francisco did not have to mention all islands that needed to be returned; this is evident from the fact that, despite the treaty only mentioning three islands, all other Korean areas were emancipated. Therefore, Dokdo is naturally included in the treaty’s list of islands renounced by Japan.



(a) Treaty of San Francisco’s draft before November 2, 1949 (b) Final draft of the treaty

Some might ask, “if South Korea has such confident arguments regarding Dokdo against Japan, why don’t they settle the problem at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and get over it?” Japan has proposed three times to refer to the dispute of territorial sovereignty over Dokdo in the ICJ, but South Korea has rejected each time. The reason is simple: The Korean government firmly believes that Dokdo is a Korean territory historically and under international law; therefore, accepting a lawsuit against Dokdo is contradictory in itself and denies Korea’s sovereignty. Moreover, it is crucial to understand that judicial fact-finding settles the formal legal truth rather than the substantive truth behind it – that is, it is complicated to state that a court’s decision revealed the absolute truth because a party can lead its position by having a superior court “technology” over the other, such as lobbying. Thus, despite its sovereignty over Dokdo, there is no guarantee that the ruling will favor Korea due to international political dynamics. Also, the perspective of Japan’s meticulous strategy to occupy Dokdo on equal grounds with Korea through the trial rather than the trial results is another reason why Korea refuses this case going to the ICJ.

Japan views Korea as a country that refuses a peaceful dispute settlement, showing its diffidence regarding the issue. This is a quote from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan: “Since 1958, Japan has accepted the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction even when another country brings a unilateral suit against it without Japan’s consent, as Japan respects the rule of law in the international community. However, the ROK (Republic of Korea) does not take the same stance. As a result, even if Japan refers the case unilaterally to the ICJ, it has no jurisdiction as long as the ROK does not accept it.” It is ironic how Japan still remains silent on the atrocities committed against Korea and other East Asian countries during the Japanese colonial period but prioritizes fact-based history when defending a potentially valuable land.  

Japan is currently in territorial dispute with Russia over four southernmost Kuril Islands (Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habomai Islands) in addition to Dokdo and with China and Taiwan over the Pinnacle Islands. Especially for the latter, which Japan currently effectively controls and does not recognize the dispute with China itself, it would be considered a disputed area under international law if Japan applied the same standards to Dokdo. This clearly shows the hypocrisy of Japan, when they are taking the same measures as other countries but blame Korea for not accepting their proposal for the ICJ. Dokdo is already a territory of Korea, and just buying a judgment in the international court is equivalent to saying that Japan’s contention is justified. If it does, it will erode Korea’s stance towards Dokdo and legitimize the dispute that Japan asserts.



(a) Kuril Islands (with Japanese name), (b) Pinnacle Islands


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