Korea reaffirmed sovereignty of Dokdo in 1900
By Yoo Mi-rim
Japan’s provocation over Korea’s easternmost island of Dokdo is becoming more aggressive with its authorization of 12 middle school textbooks that falsely state Dokdo as its own territory.
As some of the Japanese textbooks go as far as claiming that Korea is illegally occupying Dokdo, it will be inevitable for Japanese students to have a distorted view on the sovereignty over the rocky island.
Nevertheless, Japan’s claim that Dokdo is an inherent part of its territory has proven to be untrue even by its own government documents that officially acknowledge that Ulleung Island and neighboring Dokdo in the East Sea are foreign possessions.
Thus, it will be as important to provide evidence that Korea had exercised its sovereignty over it before Japan illegally annexed it in the early 20th century as it is to address the fallacies of Japan’s claims over Dokdo.
Japan has been reluctant to admit that Korea exercised effective control over Dokdo because this would greatly undermine the legitimacy of its decision to incorporate it into Shimane Prefecture in 1905.
Tokyo, however, does not hesitate to claim that Dokdo was terra nullius, or land belonging to no one, prior to its seizure in 1905, despite the fact that this contradicts its own argument that the East Sea island belonged to it for more than centuries.
In a nutshell, Japan denies Korea’s reaffirmation of its sovereignty over Dokdo through the promulgation of Imperial Ordinance No. 41 in 1900 and the latter’s effective control over the island before 1905.
Japan argues that Seokdo, which literally means rocky island and stated in the ordinance, does not refer to Dokdo.
But how truthful is Japan’s assertion?
This article will explore why Japan’s incorporation of Dokdo was illegitimate by demonstrating that Japan’s seizure of the island came as a result of Japan's encroachment on Ulleung Island and how Korea reacted to Japan’s invasions.
Japan’s plundering in Edo era
Japan’s intrusion into Ulleung Island and Dokdo goes back to the Edo period (1603-1868). In 1693, An Yong-bok and other Korean fishermen clashed with Japanese fishermen in waters off Ulleung Island.
The incident led to a diplomatic dispute between Korea and Japan and ended with the Japanese feudal government of the Edo Shogunate’s formal acknowledgement that two disputed islands belonged to Korea.
Following the Japanese Tottori clan’s report in January 1696 that Dokdo does not belong to its territory, the shogunate issued a travel ban on its nationals to Ulleung Island and Dokdo.
Japanese fishermen temporarily stopped sailing to the two Korean islands following the announcement of the measure, but they could not overcome temptation to access the rich fishery and natural resources that Dokdo and Ulleung Island offer.
Records show their illegal intrusions continued even in the 19th Century.
Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, an increasing number of Japanese people began to explore and settle in new islands.
Many demanded that the government incorporate Ulleung Island, which they first referred to as Takeshima and later Matsushima in confusion, into Japan’s territory.
As the government carried out a nationwide land-registry and mapping project, Japanese people sought inclusion of Ulleung Island and Dokdo under the jurisdiction of Shimane Prefecture.
However, the Daijokan, or the Department of State in Japan, made it clear that they were not a part of Japan’s territory in 1877.
When the Ministry of Home Affairs made an inquiry to the Daijokan, then Japan’s highest decision-making body, it instructed the ministry “to keep in mind that Takeshima and another island had nothing to do with Japan.”
The attached documents and map of the Ministry of Home Affairs indicate that the Daijokan referred the Ullueng Island as Takeshima and Dokdo, which lies just 90 kilometers from it, as another island.
Japan’s plundering on Ulleung Island showed no sign of dwindling. In the early 1880s, Korea’s central government became aware of the seriousness of the problem.
In response, it ordered to conduct an investigation on Ulleung Island and Dokdo and promote settlement on Ulleung Island.
Joseon, the last Korean kingdom, had emptied islands and institutionalized inspections on them for the safety of its citizens.
But with the increase in Japan’s intrusions, Joseon switched its policy and encouraged more of its citizens to live on Ulleung Island.
As the government exempted new settlers from tax and gave privileges, such as the license to make ships, the number of Ulleung islanders quickly rose.
However, this did not stop the Japanese from illegally logging trees and fishing from Ulleung Island and Dokdo. As Japan’s plundering worsened, the government gave more authority to the chief of Ulleung Island, Bae Gye-ju, in 1895.
Bae filed a lawsuit against Japanese who smuggled wood off his island and conducted an extensive investigation on damages incurred by Japanese trespassers along with E. Laporte, an English tax accountant working at Busan Customs Office.
Korean documents show that the population of Ulleung Island reached around 1,700 and the number of illegal Japanese migrants stood at 144 in 1900.
Given that the first 54 settlers from 16 families only came to stay on the island in 1883, its population increase was remarkably high.
In June 1900, Korean and Japanese governments carried out a joint investigation on Ulleung Island to tackle the issue.
In October 1900, the Korean government declared to the world the Imperial Ordinance No. 41 in its Gazette No. 1716, which stipulated that Ulleung Island was to have jurisdiction over Seokdo (Dokdo).
The declaration of the law was not something that came out of the blue.
It was a measure carefully drawn up based on a series of land surveys and investigations since the mid-1890s in line with the government’s efforts to better protect Ulleung islanders from Japanese intrusions and uprooting.
Dispute over Dokdo’s name
The Imperial Ordinance No.41 is crucial evidence that supports Korea’s sovereignty over Dokdo as it states that Seokdo, an interchangeable name for Dokdo, is under the jurisdiction of Ulleung County.
Some Japanese scholars say Seokdo does not refer to Dokdo, claiming that it was probably an old name for another Ulleung Island’s neighboring Gwaneum Island or a general name referring to other rocky islets closer to it.
They deny the widely-accepted view in Korea that residents of Ulleungdo interchangeably used Seokdo and Dokdo as both literally mean rocky island.
Seok, or “石,” is a Chinese character for rock, while “dok” is a Korean word used in a Jeolla Province dialect to refer to rock.
In standard Korean, rock is pronounced as “dol,” instead of “dok,” while “do” refers to island.
There are also many other ways to prove that Joseon referred to Dokdo as Seokdo.
One of them is the order of island names stated in the Imperial Ordinance.
If the ordinance only mentioned Ulleung Island, one may argue that Seokdo is Gwaneum Island.
But the ordinance specifically mentioned that Ulleung Island and its two sister islands Jukdo and Seokdo fall under the jurisdiction of the Ulleung County.
Gwaneum Island lies between Jukdo and Dokdo. Therefore, if the Korean government considered Gwaneum Island as Seokdo, it would have been named before Jukdo in order of distance from Ulleung Island.
Simply put, it makes little sense that Joseon would have stated Gwaneum Island in the ordinance as it did not have much significance in drawing the territorial boundary, nor large human settlement.
Therefore, it can be concluded that Seokdo was a name for Dokdo that is located farther from Ulleung Island than Jukdo and lies on the easternmost part of the country.
A recent discovery of the Ulleung County Jeolmok, a document stating rules that the Korean central government made in 1902 for Ulleung Island, illustrates how determined Korea was to protect its sovereignty against Japan’s growing intrusion.
No. 1 clause of the decree states that anyone who secretly sells a house or land to a foreigner would face the death sentence.
The Jeolmok also states that the Korean government bans illegal logging and exporting of wood from Ulleung Island by Japanese. It also demands retrieval of land and tax incentives from those returning to the mainland.
As Imperial Ordinance No. 41 placed Seokdo, now better known as Dokdo, under the jurisdiction of Ulleung County, the 1902 decree serves as invaluable evidence that Korea maintained its rule over Dokdo in the early 1900s.
The writer is a director of the Korea-Asia Cultural Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com.