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Flashpoint in Japanese-Korean Relations
Clockwise from top left: South Koreans send coast guard to drill in show of force; Hur Joon-young shakes hands with police officers on Dokdo; visitors of the special exhibition “Let’s Visit Our Dokdo,” look at a 1/150th scale model of Dokdo. (AP)

Flashpoint in Japanese-Korean Relations

Connecticut College's Alexis Dudden speaks on "Illegal Korea".

Japan's annexation of Korea from 1905 to 1945 is still a raw issue. "We can take as a baseline of knowledge that Japan committed horrible atrocities in Korea," said Alexis Dudden of Connecticut College at a May 1, 2006, colloquium sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Center for Japanese Studies. In spite of that preface, she had to placate an audience member whose outburst culminated with, "You know what the Japanese did? They banned even the Korean language! That is the Koreans' language! How can they do that?"

"We don't disagree about this," Dudden tried to reassure the man.

Lingering Korean bitterness about the occupation has worsened as Japan has reiterated its claims on a pair of uninhabited islets and the nearby waters and seabed, which are rich in fish, squid, minerals, and natural gas. Located between Korea and Japan and currently under South Korea's control, the islands and surrounding rocks are called Dokdo by the Koreans and Takeshima by the Japanese.

Competition for natural gas resources has spun off a controversy over the naming of the sea between Japan and Korea, currently called the Sea of Japan, Dudden explained. Koreans want that changed to the East Sea, she said, out of concerns that the current name gives Japan a symbolic edge in claims on resources.

In Seoul in March 2005, a few protestors cut off one of their own fingers to demonstrate what it would mean for Korea to give up control of Dokdo. Another man set himself on fire. Korean protesters also took to the streets in Los Angeles. All this was in response to a Japanese envoy's remark that the islets belonged to Japan, to the designation of a Takeshima Day by the regional Japanese legislature in Shimane Prefecture, and to reports that Japanese textbooks were distorting the history of the occupation of Korea.

The Japanese claim on Dokdo dates to 1905, when the navy seized the island as a prelude to the invasion and occupation of almost all Korea, much of China, and other lands. The Japanese declared to the international community that their annexation of the island during the Russo-Japanese war and further expansion were entirely legal. When pressed for a justification, "the Japanese would say, 'Hey! We were just doing what everyone else was doing,'" Dudden explained. Within the context of the global affairs of the day, in which colonizing nations made the rules, Korea's protests about Japan's empire-making were lost.

Today, long after Japan withdrew from Korea and began issuing official apologies, 20 to date, the country is again advancing its claim on Dokdo/Takeshima to the international community. This has engendered new skepticism about the sincerity of the apologies. One contained in a letter from Hirohito, emperor of the expansionist period, scarcely deserves to be called an apology, Dudden said. The letter's sole expression of regret, "an apology to those who lost their lands abroad," applies not to Koreans, she said, but to Japanese who had territories and estates that had to be abandoned after the withdrawal.

Japan refuses to call the invasion of Korea a war, saying that war was never declared. As for the $600 million that Japan gave to Korea after the occupation, that is known as the "congratulations on your independence money" in order to avoid any mention of reparations, Dudden said. In a set of insults that angered both Koreans and Chinese, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi repeatedly has visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japanese war dead since 1869 that honors, with others, 14 convicted war criminals.

Japan's prominent place in the global economy and staunch U.S. backing allow it to get away with this posture, Dudden said, suggesting that the geopolitical dynamics have come to resemble those of the early twentieth century.

Meanwhile, as part of shrewd attempts to delegitimize Korea as a whole, Dudden said, Japan has drawn attention to North Korea's admitted abduction of Japanese citizens and other highlights of the outcast regime's rap sheet. Calling her talk "Illegal Korea," she argued that the Japanese have attempted to fashion the two Koreas as a single rogue entity in the eyes of the international community.

"It's hard for a historian not to take a side," she said, adding that the United States is apparently bound by security agreements with both South Korea and Japan to go to war with whichever side fires first, if it ever came to that. She doubts that it ever will come to that, but hinted that strong U.S.-Japanese ties (including a good personal relationship between Bush and Koizumi) might trump the other alliance.