The US’ Influence on the Liancourt Rocks Dispute
Strengthening Japan’s Illegitimate Claims of Sovereignty

Jessica Noelle Haynes

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Roughly halfway between the Korean peninsula and the western edge of the Japanese
island of Honshu, two tiny islets sit isolated by nearly 100 nautical miles of open water in all
directions; these islets, whose combined surface area amounts to about 230,000 square meters
(about 57 acres), have become the center of a heated battle for territory between the Japan and
the Republic of Korea that has been raging since 1905 (BBC 2012). Though the islets are
miniscule in size, their acquisition for either country would represent a considerable amount of
economic clout, considering the richness of the surrounding area in natural resources. The
dispute over the Liancourt Rocks is not unique to the region, since the close proximity of all
coastal or island Eastern Asian countries causes difficulties in discerning the boundaries of
nautical territories. However, when accounting for the political atmosphere between the two
disputing states, the Liancourt Rocks Dispute begins to appear more independent of the other
island disputes in East Asia, as the continuing tension represents a reflection of longstanding
animosity between the South Korea and Japan. Political warfare and the former Japanese
occupation of the Korean peninsula have ensured the survival of this feud, despite the fact that
both Japan and South Korea have been pulled into the same sphere of influence alongside the
United States. While both states’ claims on the Liancourt Rocks are multifaceted and justifiable,
South Korea’s claim on the islands carries more weight and legitimacy due to declarations from
the Japanese government preceding 1900, the fundamental principle of the prohibition on the use
of force, and previous rulings in international tribunals concerning the ownership of disputed
islands. However, despite Korea’s much stronger claim on the Liancourt Rocks according to
international law, Japan’s claim to sovereignty continues to hold its ground after all these years,
mostly due to the backing that the island nation received from the United States in the years
following World War II. Because of the political tensions raging during the decades following

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the end of the war, the United States had plenty of motivation to favor the new Japanese state, as
the concerns over communism and the mounting Korean War were at the forefront of
Americans’ minds. Because of the San Francisco Treaty of 1951, the infamous Rusk Note, and
America’s continuing neutrality on the issue, the United States has succeeded in perpetuating a
feud that would have been long solved in favor of Korea.
The Economic Importance of the Liancourt Rocks
The Liancourt Rocks, though small in size and virtually useless in and of themselves due
to their steep rock faces, represent a large gain of resources for either country that claims them,
thus making the dispute over the islets a justifiable argument between states. The “Liancourt
Rocks” is the name that was given to two major islands and an estimated thirty other tiny rocks
in the surrounding area by a French crew in 1849, following a near-collision between the rocks
and their whaling ship (McCurry 2010). The two islands that are commonly associated with the
name are actually the only visible portion of an underwater volcano, leading many to believe that
the seabed surrounding the rocks are rich with minerals, natural gas, and possibly oil (McCurry
2010). Due to the disputed status of the rocks, neither government has been able to test the
seabed for such resources, but that does not stop South Korea and Japan from vying to establish
the ability to do so, whether the mineral resources are present in actuality or not. The true allure
of claiming the islands is the prospect of gaining the exclusive economic zone that would be at
the disposal of whichever state proved its sovereignty over the Liancourt Rocks. According to
the Convention of the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1982 by 157 states and went into
effect in 1994, twelve nautical miles in all directions off of the coast of a state’s territory are
automatically deemed “territorial waters;” these waters can be used by the state in question in
any way they see fit, and the only claim other states have in this zone is the right to safe passage

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with permission (Cassese 2005, 84-85). However, the exclusive economic zone, which gives the
owner of a territory the exclusive permission to utilize the water and the seabed beneath it in any
way for economic gain, includes up to 200 nautical miles off of the territorial waters, meaning
that the owner of the Liancourt Rocks would have in the area of 212 nautical miles of sea to
exploit for its resources without having to worry about competition (Cassesse 2005, 87-88).
Therefore, even if the nonliving natural resources that South Korea and Japan expect to find do
not exist in the immediate region of the rocks, the possibility of finding some sort of natural
resources within such a large exclusive economic zone are actually quite high, making the rocks
extremely desirable.
In addition to this presumed abundance of resources is a visible abundance of resources
in the form of aquatic life; the Liancourt Rocks are surrounded by reefs that are home to
thousands of rare fish, making the area around the rocks an ideal fishing location (Lee 2002b, 12). While the twelve-mile radius of territorial waters around the rocks is probably enough space
to encompass the surrounding reefs in an exclusive fishing zone, when one considers the creation
of an exclusive economic zone, the possibilities of forming a fishing monopoly in the area
suddenly emerges. An exclusive economic zone not only gives a state the sole access to mineral
and other non-living resources in the water and seabed, but also allows the state sole access to all
living resources, meaning that the Liancourt Rocks would create a circular area with a diameter
of an astounding 424 nautical miles of exclusive fishing territory in the middle of the Sea of
Japan (Cassese 2005, 88). The ability to unilaterally fish this region would cause a significant
win-lose situation for the two states, especially since both South Korea and Japan are currently
using the water surrounding the Liancourt Rocks as a fishing spot. The two states signed the
Korea-Japan Fishery Agreement in 2002, which allows Japan to take up to 94,000 tons of fish

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from the region, while Korea’s hauls are capped at a generous 149,200 tons (Fern 2005, 81).
When one takes into account that much of the fish caught in the area are rare or difficult to find
in the coastal waters surrounding both South Korea and Japan, the currency amount of these
quotas is probably astronomical. The East-West Center of the University at Manoa in Hawaii has
recently reported that the region would most likely yield over 10 million tons of fish annually if
the fishing quotas were removed, making the economic claim over the rocks extremely tempting,
even in the event of a total lack of seabed resources (Fern 2005, 81). In addition to the surplus of
reef fish, the area has also been used for both sea lion hunting – mostly by Japanese fishermen –
and whaling, both of which are still strong businesses in East Asia (Ministry of Foreign Affairs
of Japan n.d., 2).
Historical Implications
While the Liancourt Rocks’ economic importance is certainly strong enough to
perpetuate the dispute alone, the islets also represent a point of political contention between
South Korea and Japan, which is deeply rooted in hostilities between Imperial Japan and the
Korean peninsula in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Japan and Korea occasionally
challenged each other in minor territorial issues during Japan’s period of complete isolation –
known as sakoku, but due to the Japanese government’s decision to execute any foreigner who
enters the country or any native who leaves and returns, the contact between the two states was
sparse before the second half of the 1800s (Totman 1980, 2). Following the arrival of American
Commodore Perry on the shores of Japan with his famous Black Fleet in 1853, Japan was
suddenly forced into allowing foreign trade, which – by 1868 – led to the founding of the
kaikoku philosophy: the philosophy of complete openness to foreigners (Totman 1980, 3). After
trade began to increase throughout Japan, the Tokugawa Shogunate – which ruled the state with

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an iron fist easily due to a lack of external influences concerning governmental style – soon
toppled and was replaced by the Meiji government, which was heavily influenced by the
governmental structures of the imperial powers in the West (Totman 1980, 2-3). The Meiji
government soon dedicated itself to the garnering of political influence in Eastern Asia,
presumably due to a painful realization of the relative weakness of the tiny island archipelago in
the region (Oda 1967, 35). During this period of active imperialism, Japan slowly began to
involve itself in the internal workings of Korea, first by forcing its political influence on the
weaker state, and later by the establishment of a Korean protectorate.
Beginning with agreements made during the Russo-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Japan
committed itself slowly gaining complete control of Korea, which, by 1910, brought about the
annexation of the peninsula into the Japanese state; this colonialism and, later, complete
domination at the hands of the Japanese has led to a Korean bitterness against Japan that tends to
worsen territorial feuds between the two states. After forcing Korea into an agreement to seek
Japanese council and permission before signing agreements with other states or before making
internal structural changes during the Russo-Japanese War, Japan took a stance towards the West
that painted the growing East Asian empire as an agent for peace (Oda 1967, 36). This stance
proved to be so effective that the United States and the Great Britain signed agreements with
Japan in 1905 – the Taft-Katsura Agreement and the British-Japanese Agreement of 1905,
respectively – that conceded that a Japanese protectorate in Korea would greatly promote the
region’s stability (Oda 1967, 36). With the permission of the West, Japan moved in that same
year to occupy the Korean peninsula and most of its islands – including the Liancourt Rocks – in
its creation of an official Korean protectorate. Unfortunately, however, the Japanese’ ambition
did not stop solely at the creation of a protectorate; in 1910, the Emperor of Japan forced the

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Emperor of Korea into signing the Treaty Annexing Korea to Japan on August 29, 1910, which
would bind Korea to Japan as an official colony until the close of World War II in 1945 (Oda
1967, 36). The stealing of Korea’s sovereignty was a large enough blow to cause any state to
harbor a grudge, but the Japanese only exacerbated the Koreans’ bitterness due to their
committing of war crimes throughout all of its occupied regions during World War II, including
mass murder – such as in during the Rape of Nanking, in China – and forced, widespread sexual
slavery – through the kidnapping of women throughout Korea and China to serve as prostitutes
for the Japanese army (Oi 2013).
This deep-seated hatred towards their period of Japanese colonialism has led the South
Korean state to repeatedly refuse to resolve the Liancourt Rocks Dispute in an international
court, as Korea continues to affirm that the isles are, without a doubt, Korean, and cannot be
parceled out by an international body. As was pointed out by Dong-Joon Park and Danielle
Chubb in their article for The Diplomat, the Japanese claim on the Liancourt Rocks serves as
nothing less than a reminder of Japanese imperialism, making the Korean government much less
willing to cooperate (2011). In fact, the Korean opinion is so emotionally charged that the
Korean government has – for 60 years – refused the Japanese offer to take the dispute to the
International Court of Justice, as doing so would recognize that the Japanese claim has at least
marginal legitimacy (McCurry 2010). Another understood aspect of the use of the International
Court of Justice is the fact that, if the Liancourt Rocks’ fate were to be handed over to the ICJ,
the two states would have to abide by the decision reached by the Court, since the submitting of
the issue in the first place gives the Court full jurisdiction. The risk that the ICJ would rule on the
side of Japan is simply too dangerous for the Korean government to take, especially since the
giving of the Liancourt Rocks to Japan would be equivalent to allowing Imperial Japan get away

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with part of its 1905 invasion of Korean lands (McCurry 2010). The dispute appears to be less
emotionally charged on the Japanese side of the dispute, as most of the public statements from
the Japanese on the issue tend to originate from the government itself, and not from the riots,
protests, and public demonstrations that occur occasionally in Seoul. One of the more extreme
cases of public demonstrations in Seoul in 2005 led a mother and son to publicly cut off their
own fingers in front of the Japanese embassy in response to the announcement of “Takeshima
Day” – a day which celebrates the Takeshima Islands (the Japanese name for the Liancourt
Rocks) and its integral part in Japanese history (McCurry 2010). Actions such as these often
baffle the Japanese, but it is possible that the Japanese are less cognizant of the historical
tensions between South Korea and Japan, since most school systems in Japan do not teach
Japanese history of the 20th century (Oi 2013).
The Korean Claim on “Dokdo”
The Korean claim on “Dokdo” – meaning “lonely island” in Korean – is based on the
notion that Korea had longstanding, recognized control over the islands before 1905, and that
South Korea’s current occupation of the islands solidifies its claim. According to the South
Korean government, “Dokdo” has been under the administrative control of Korea since 512 AD,
when the islands first appeared in Korean governmental documents –including in the diary of
King Jijeung – and on Korean maps (Kim 2009, 99). However, knowledge of a region’s
existence alone is not nearly enough to prove a state’s ownership of said land, and has not acted
as a determining factor in disputes even as far back as the 1600s (Simsarian 1938, 115-118).
South Korea claims that the Korean government actually had proven, recognized control over the
islets as far back as the mid-1600s, as evidenced by both Dokdo’s inclusion into Ulleungdo
County in governmental documents and by the public statements issued by the Japanese

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government during and after that period. Dokdo’s inclusion into Ulleungdo County can at least
be proven as far back as 1770, when the Reference Compilation of Documents of Korea was
released; the compilation defines Ulleungdo County as the combined land mass of Ulleugndo
Island and Dokdo in a time period far preceding Japan’s declaration of the islets as terra nullius
(Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea n.d.). In addition to the documental proof,
South Korea cites the public decisions of the Japanese government in 1696 and 1877, both of
which seem to point towards Korean control of “Dokdo.” In 1696, following a heated meeting
between Korean and Japanese fishermen in the waters surrounding the Liancourt Rocks, the
Korean government pressed Japan to forbid its fishermen from using “Dokdo” and its
surrounding area as a fishing spot (Kim 2009, 98-99). The Tokugawa Shogunate responded
promptly with an apology for the transgression: an apology that South Korea claims was an
explicit recognition of Korea’s control over the islands. Later, in 1877, the government of the
Shimane Prefecture in Japan contacted the central Meiji government to ask for the inclusion of
both Ulleungdo and “Dokdo” into itself (Kim 2009, 99). To the dismay of the Shimane
Prefecture, the Japanese Council of State ruled that the islands were outside of Japanese
influence, and that Japan would “have nothing to do with them” (Kim 2009, 99).
In addition Korea’s historical claim on “Dokdo,” the South Korean government also
insists that “Dokdo” is now Korean without a doubt due to the current Korean occupation of the
islets. In the same year that the United States abandoned the Liancourt Rocks after using the
islets as a bombing range for four years, Korean forces immediately began to occupy the islets.
In 1952, President Syngman Rhee announced the creation of the “Syngman Rhee Line,” which
unilaterally drew a boundary between the waters controlled by Korea and Japan in the Sea of
Japan. This line claimed for Korea the complete jurisdiction of waters an average of 60 miles off

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the coast of any Korean land, including Ulleungdo Island, which is about 74 miles from the
Liancourt Rocks (Lee 2002a, 93-94). While the drawing of this boundary was openly an attempt
to keep any Japanese forces from approaching Korea – in fear of another invasion – President
Syngman Rhee took this opportunity as a means through which to claim the Liancourt Rocks.
This line has since been removed, as the Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 finalized the
boundaries of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones, but Korea’s occupation of the
islands continues. Originally, the islets were patrolled by a group of volunteer militants, but
today, South Korea has a permanent coastguard stationed on the islets which has, at most, a
headcount of three dozen officers (Glionna 2011). Though the officers do not shoot at
approaching Japanese vessels, they will verbally turn them around or prevent them from docking
by placing their own boats in the way. Since 1953, South Korea has formalized their occupation
of the islets by building a small military outpost atop the peak of one of the islets, as well as
building a wharf and offering to ferry tourists from the mainland to see the disputed rocks
(Glionna 2011). In addition to this military occupation, South Korea claims that it has rights to
control the islets due to its inhabitation: since 1971, a Korean fisherman by the name of Kim
Seong-do has been living on the smaller of the two islands, and the Korean government pays him
a modest monthly stipend to keep him from leaving (Glionna 2011).
Legitimizing Korea’s Claim
When considering international law, South Korea’s claim to the Liancourt Rocks appears
to be much more legitimate, despite the main avenue of solving marine territorial disputes – the
Convention on the Law of the Sea – failing to bring an end to the argument. Being that the
Liancourt Rocks are 134 miles from the coast of the Korean peninsula and 155 miles from the
coast of Japan’s largest island of Honshu, the islets are far beyond the territorial waters of both

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countries, which only extend 12 nautical miles off of the coast (“Dokdo-Takeshima Island “).
Even when one takes into account the territorial waters around the two closest islands –
Ulleungdo of Korea and Oki Island of Japan, which are about 74 miles and 98 miles away from
the Liancourt Rocks, respectively – the islets remain far beyond the territorial reach of both
South Korea and Japan (“Dokdo-Takeshima Island”). However, because of the inclusion of
exclusive economic zones in the 1982 Convention, one could feasibly argue that the Liancourt
Rocks could legally be either state’s territory, since it is within 200 nautical miles of both states’
sovereign territories. The close proximity of East Asian countries, however, causes this issue
quite often, leaving the parceling out of islands up to more specific instances of recognized
sovereignty, occupation, or the decisions of international courts.
The first argument that strengthens the Korean claim on the Liancourt Rocks is the
assertion that Japan explicitly recognized Korea’s sovereign control over the islets on two
occasions, the more important of the two being the instance in 1696. As mentioned before, the
Korean government condemned the use of the Liancourt Rocks by Japanese fishermen after a
heated meeting between fishermen from the two states; soon afterward, the Tokugawa Shogunate
of Japan issued an official apology, and forbid Japanese citizens from travelling to the islets in an
effort to ensure peaceable relations with the Korean peninsula (Kim 2009, 98-99). The
Tokugawa Shogunate’s choice to issue an official apology and the following ban on travel to the
island is a clear instance of recognition of Korean sovereignty of the islets at that time period.
While the Japanese government would, no doubt, argue that the instance occurred 318 years ago
during the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate and, therefore, no longer has any bearing on the
current state of affairs, international law would prove this assumption wholly incorrect. In the
current international system, the changing of a governmental system of a state does not free the

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new administration from the obligations established by its predecessor (Cassese 2005, 77). The
fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 1860s led to a sudden surge of Japanese occupations of
regions that the Tokugawa government had recognized as foreign territory – including the
occupation of the Korean peninsula and many Korean islands – meaning the new Meiji
government essentially disregarded any decisions made by the shogunate. According to this
portion of law, the Meiji government had the obligation of upholding its recognition of the islets
as Korean territory, thus rendering the government’s unilateral declaration of the rocks being
terra nullius in 1905 – and, therefore, open to Japanese occupation – utterly outside of
international law.
Because the Japanese Cabinet’s declaration of the Liancourt Rocks as terra nullius was
illegal and untrue, the Japanese government’s decision to move in to occupy the islets during the
same year goes against the prohibition on the threat and use of force: one of the central
fundamental principles of the modern international system. Thanks to the creation of the UN
Charter and its signing in 1945, the international community soon came to accept that “the threat
or use of armed force must not be resorted to against (a) States or (b) peoples having a
representative organization” (Cassese 2005, 57). While it is true that this fundamental principle
was not officially codified at the time of Japan’s seizing of the islets in 1905, the presence of this
idea in the international system can be proven through the Allies’ promise to return all lands that
had been wrongfully conquered by Japan before World War II to their former sovereign owners
(Hara 2001, 368-369). Even in the earliest drafts of the San Francisco Treaty, the Allies sought
to limit the sovereignty of Japan to “the four principle islands of Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, and
Hokkaido and all adjacent minor islands” that the Allied powers saw fit, which demonstrates that
the Allies viewed Japan’s claim on its conquered lands as illegitimate (Hara 2001, 369). In the

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current international system, the only avenues through which a state is legally able to claim a
territory for itself are: through the effective occupation of terra nullius, the cession of the
territory to the state in question via treaty, and the effective occupation of a new body of land
that has only recently formed due to natural processes (Cassese 2005, 83). As Japan’s terra
nullius claim is disproven by the 1696 incident, the only other way that Japan could hope to
prove its legitimate ownership of the islets would be to argue that Korea signed over the control
of its land to Japan in 1910 in the Treaty Annexing Korea to Japan. Unfortunately for the
Japanese government, the situation surrounding the signing of the treaty renders the agreement
invalid according to international law, as the Emperor of Korea at the time was actively coerced
into signing the document (Cassese 2005, 177). With Japan’s claim on the island essentially
disproven, Korea’s claim on the Liancourt Rocks can easily be justified through the prerequisites
for ownership of small islands that have been established through the decisions of international
Starting in 1928 and continuing until after World War II, a series of international court
decisions were released concerning the sovereign control of small islets, each of them focusing
primarily on the need of a state to demonstrate effective control over the islet in question as the
most important indicator of ownership of a disputed islet. The first and most important court
decision in this series is the Island of Palmas decision, which came from the Permanent Court of
Arbitration in 1928, which ruled upon the Island of Palmas dispute between the Netherlands and
the United States. The United States claimed that – as the colonial power over the Philippines at
the time and the successor of Spain on this matter – the Island of Palmas had been a part of the
Spanish Philippines, and that the US now had direct claim over it. On the other hand, the Dutch
government claimed that Spain had had no claim on the island in the first place, as the Dutch

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occupied the island, while the Spaniards had only discovered the island first (Van Dyke 2007,
159). The Court ruled in favor of the Netherlands, saying that historical knowledge of an island
does not qualify as proof of a state’s claim; a state must demonstrate its sovereign control over
an island in question through occupation, either through a military presence or inhabitation. (Van
Dyke 2007, 159). This prerequisite to the claim over an island was upheld repeatedly over the
next two decades of court decisions in both the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the
International Court of Justice, which eventually led to the consensus that a state must have
demonstrated sovereignty through occupation and administration of the island within the last 100
years in order to be able to claim an island as its own (Van Dyke 2007, 159). Japan’s occupation
of the Liancourt Rocks ended in 1948, when American forces officially claimed the islets as a
military bombing range; following the signing of the San Francisco Treaty, the United States still
did not return the islands to Japanese control, opting instead to forbid Japanese administration
and occupation of the islets. Immediately following the United States’ decision to abandon the
bombing range near the end of the Korean War, South Korean forces moved in to occupy the
islets with a military force: a military force that has remained constant since 1953. Since the
occupation of Japan has been proven as moot and invalid due to the circumstances surrounding
the invasion and the announcement of terra nullius, the only state to have legally occupied the
Liancourt Rocks within the last 100 years is, of course, South Korea.

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The United States’ Influence on Japan’s Claim
As mentioned briefly before, Japan’s claim on the Liancourt Rocks is strongly based in
the Japanese Cabinet’s 1905 declaration of terra nullius, which was made without any
consultation of the Korean government on the matter. However, since the claim of terra nullius
has been disproven by the consideration of international law, Japan’s strongest claim on the tiny
islets now rests squarely on the shoulders of actions taken by the United States during the 1940s
and 1950s, along with the superpower’s continuing refusal to take sides on the matter. Because
of the United States’ decision to modify the 1950 draft of the San Francisco Treaty, and the
sending of the Rusk Note in 1951 to the Korean Ambassador to the United States, the Japanese
government claims that the US explicitly recognized Japan’s sovereignty over “Takeshima” –
meaning “bamboo island” in Japanese – and that their claim on the rocks is only strengthened by
America’s lack of overt support for the Korean cause.
The 1951 San Francisco Treaty officially brought World War II in the Pacific to an end,
but was also meant to be the realization of the promise made to Korea by the allies at the Cairo
Declaration of 1943, which pledged the Allies to the duty of freeing all of Korea from Japanese
influence (Hara 2001, 368). However, while the treaty did, indeed, dismantle Imperial Japan, the
fate of the Liancourt Rocks shifted several times during the composing of the treaty’s various
drafts due to the actions of American politicians: the most notable of these actions being the
Rusk Note of 1951. In the earliest drafts of the San Francisco Treaty, the Liancourt Rocks were
explicitly identified as land that would be returned to Korea in the treaty’s territory clause; the
status of the Liancourt Rocks remained stable throughout the drafts penned between late 1946
and the end of 1949. In December of 1949, however, the Liancourt Rocks were suddenly
removed from the territory clause of the treaty, and were, instead, added to the clause defining

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Japanese territory, appearing alongside other long-established Japanese islands such as Oki
Island and Tsushima (Hara 2001,369). Japanese politicians rejoiced at the addition of
“Takeshima” to the definition of their territory, but the US State Department never came forward
of their own accord in order to address their sudden change in stance. The decision to allocate the
Liancourt Rocks to Korea seemed all too natural to circumvent, and was greatly supported by the
US’ treatment of the islets during the early years of the American occupation of Japan, as
American forces forbid Japan from extending administrative control to the islands due to the
establishment of the “MacArthur Line” (Hara 2001,368-370). This line, which was only in use
during the American occupation, determined which islands Japan could govern during the slow
reconstruction of the state; due to the Liancourt Rocks’ considerable distance away from the
central Japanese islands, the islets were governed solely by the United States – and were used as
a bombing range – during this period of time. Because of the already-apparent separation that the
United States had established between the islets and the Japanese government and the prior
promise to return the islets to Korea at the close of World War II, the Korean government was
shocked by the American government’s turnabout, and quickly demanded that the situation be
rectified according to the Cairo Declaration.
The Korean demand for the Liancourt Rocks to be restored to the territory clause of the
San Francisco Treaty came in the form of a letter from the Korean Ambassador to the United
States, which was sent to the US Secretary of State several months before the signing of the San
Francisco Treaty. Unfortunately for the Korean cause, the response that the ambassador received
would soon become the linchpin of the Japanese claim to the Liancourt Rocks. In response to the
Korean Ambassador’s request, the Assistant Secretary of State – Mr. Dean Rusk – wrote that the
United States government could find no documentation that definitively proved “Dokdo’s” status

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as a Korean island at any point in history (Lee 2002a, 143). According to Rusk, the only
legitimate claim ever made to the islets was the Japanese claim, which was established without a
doubt following the 1905 occupation and following inclusion of the islets into Shimane
Prefecture (Lee 2002a, 143). Following Rusk’s curt reply to the Korean Ambassador in 1951, the
treaty was signed without any further negotiations concerning the fate of the Liancourt Rocks.
Curiously enough, however, the Liancourt Rocks were completely removed from the territory
clauses of both Korea and Japan by the time the final draft of the San Francisco Treaty was
presented to the potential signatories (Hara 2001, 371.) While the US did not explicitly support
the existence of “Takeshima” in the final draft of the treaty, the damage caused by Rusk’s letter
had already been done, and the Japanese government immediately began using the Assistant
Secretary’s reply as proof that America supported Japan’s claim. To this day, the Rusk Note is
frequently mentioned by individuals arguing for Japanese control over the islets and their
precious resources, as this very obvious preference towards Japan gave the former empire’s
claim permanent legitimacy in the international sphere; despite the legal issues with Japan’s
claim, the US’ temporary and open recognition of Takeshima – when paired with the
superpower’s continuing neutrality on the matter in the present – gives Japanese politicians just
enough footing to continue the dispute.
The United States, being allied to both South Korea and Japan at present, continues to
refrain from taking an open stance in the dispute due to conflicting defense treaties and the
prospect of becoming involved in a war between the two states. In 1953, the Mutual Defense
Treaty between the United States and the Republic of Korea was signed, which bound the US to
come to the defense of South Korea if ever the state was subjected to a massive armed attack
from outside. Similarly, the United States also signed a defense treaty with Japan – the Treaty of

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Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan – which went into effect
in 1960 and also obligated the US to come to the aid of a Southeast Asian ally in the event of an
attack from another state. If the United States were to recognize “Takeshima’s” legitimacy,
suddenly, the current Korean occupation becomes an illegal invasion of Japanese territory in the
eyes of the American government. Despite being the signatory of a Korean defense treaty, the
United States would be obligated to attack the South Korean police force stationed on the islets
and essentially risk starting a war against one of America’s closest allies in the East. On the other
hand, if America were to side with Dokdo, we would forever be obligated to support Korea’s
statements on the matter, and to assist in protecting the islets against encroaching Japanese ships.
Because of the lose-lose situation in which the US finds itself in the Liancourt case, Washington
closely monitors any statements given to the press concerning the islets; in fact, the importance
of Washington remaining neutral is so strong that the US government is not against completely
disregarding statements made by high-ranking officials on the matter. Following a statement
made by Secretary of State Kerry in early February that seemed to favor South Korea’s claim on
“Dokdo,” the US State Department released a statement that explained that Secretary Kerry had
been confused by the wording a question about the Liancourt Rocks at a press conference, and
that his response had been in no way an accurate reflection of current US foreign policy (Gale
2014). Though Seoul took the statement as a sign of the US’ support for “Dokdo” – and
continues to view it as such, despite the later comment released by the State Department – the
US government continues to officially adopt a policy of neutrality, which allows the bickering
neighbors to continue to fight over the islets fruitlessly.

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Motivations Behind Favoring Japan
The United States’ motivations for originally favoring Japan in the battle over the
Liancourt Rocks comes down to solely a matter of self-interest; by siding with their new ally, the
United States saw the potential of both combatting Communism in the East and potentially
gaining a strategic landmass for themselves. In the late forties, the Cold War was only just
beginning, and the fear of Russian Communism – which was viewed as the arch nemesis of
American democracy – was spreading throughout the West like wildfire. Though the Domino
Theory had not yet taken its final form – the form with which we are most familiar: President
Eisenhower’s 1954 speech concerning communism in Indochina – the fear of communism
spreading throughout Southeast Asia had been a fear in American politics since Ho Chi Minh’s
rebellion against the French control of Vietnam in 1945 (History.com n.d.). After the defeat of
Japan in World War II and the following dismantling of the Meiji government, the possibility of
Communism spreading to the destroyed state was high; the American forces were sure to negate
this threat by occupying the Japanese islands and assist in rebuilding the state from the ground
up. However, in order to be sure that the reformed Japan would remain willingly in the Western
sphere of influence, the United States began working towards fostering a close relationship with
the reborn state. By assisting in the rebuilding of the state, the United States had already won a
bit of a positive reputation with the new Japanese government, but Washington was determined
to forge a close friendship, as one can clearly see in the US’ willingness to enter a mutual
defense treaty with the new Japan in 1960. Before this treaty, however, the United States caved
to Japanese interests by allowing the Liancourt Rocks to remain within Japan’s influence thanks
to the islets’ removal from the Korean territory clause of the San Francisco Treaty. Not only did
this change win Japanese fondness for America, but it also kept a potentially strategic pair of

Haynes 19
islands out of the hands of Korea, whose future was still unsure in 1951. The Korean War would
not end until 1953, meaning that the American politicians involved in the drafting of the San
Francisco Treaty were most assuredly preoccupied with the possibility of Korea ending up as a
communist state, making the allocation of a disputed pair of islets to Japan seem to be a logical
Even though the potential value of the Liancourt Rocks’ resources was much lower in the
1940s and 1950s – due to the lack of an exclusive economic zone, of course – the islets were
deemed as potentially useful due to their location. While it can be argued that the US
successfully kept the Liancourt Rocks from being used by a potential Communist Korean
regime, one would be foolish to suggest this altruistic motivation as being the backbone of the
US’ decision to give the islets temporarily to Japan. The United States had been using the islets
as a bombing range – beginning in 1948 – and continued to use them as such until 1952; this
course of action demonstrates the US’ intention to remain in control of the rocks during their
occupation of Japan, especially since the Liancourt Rocks fell outside of the MacArthur Line,
even during the time period during which the US openly sided with Japan’s claim (Van Dyke
2007, 183). Because the United States did not reassess the MacArthur Line to place the islands
within Japan’s direct administrative control, one can only assume that America had full intent to
govern the islets themselves as long as the US occupation lasted, meaning that the US could reap
the benefits of having a strategic foothold between Korea and Japan in the meantime. The
importance of the islets was clearly stated by the US Ambassador to Japan, William Sebald,
during the drafting of the San Francisco Treaty; according to him, the islets seemed to have the
potential to be home to weather and radar stations that could be used in the interest of American
security in the region (Seokwoo 2002a, 130). Sebald even briefly discussed the possibility of a

Haynes 20
small naval base being built on the islets, as well as continued the American use of the islets to
train bombers before sending them into action in Korea. One cannot be sure that the United
States had any true intention of giving the Liancourt Rocks to Japan to control, as the US
maintained complete control over them up until 1952, and did nothing when Korean militias
began to occupy it in 1953.

Despite South Korea’s claim on the Liancourt Rocks clearly being more legally grounded
according to international law, Japan continues to assert its own claim over the two tiny islets,
citing the previous actions of the United States to prove its claim’s legitimacy. The United States
– due to a fear of Communism and due to the strategic importance of the islets – favored Japan’s
claim on the rocks during the late 1940s and early 1950s by removing the islands from the
Korean territory clause in the San Francisco Treaty and by responding openly in “Takeshima’s”
favor in the Rusk Note of 1951. These two actions – especially the direct and inarguable wording
used by Dean Rusk in his letter to the Korean Ambassador – have become the backbone of the
Japanese claim on the islands, and lend legitimacy to the dispute. Because the United States
continues to refuse to take a stance on the issue – due to the US being signatories of defense
treaties with both South Korea and Japan – Japan is able to continue to assert its claim on the
Liancourt Rocks: a claim that is clearly disproven due to the state’s prior recognition of Korea’s
control over the rocks. Had the United States’ self-interest not played this territorial dispute
between two East Asian states, the Liancourt Rocks would be unquestionably and undeniably
Korean, since the islands would have been given to Korea in the earlier drafts of the San
Francisco Treaty. Though America’s actions is the only backing Japan has to its claim on the

Haynes 21
islands, the Liancourt Rocks Dispute is unlikely to end anytime soon, unless the US decides to
risk the damaging of an alliance to pick a side.

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