Korean National Identity, Civic Activism and the Dokdo/Takeshima Territorial Dispute

Date01 August 2016
Published date01 August 2016
Subject MatterArticles
Korean National Identity,
Civic Activism and
the Dokdo/Takeshima
Territorial Dispute
Alexander Bukh1
This article joins the debate on the territorial dispute between South Korea and
Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima islets. The extant literature tends to attribute
the continuous importance of the dispute for Korean politics to the collective his-
torical memory of Japanese colonialism. This article seeks to offer a more nuanced
interpretation of the symbolic role of Dokdo in Korean national identity. By focus-
ing on the largest civil society organization engaged in ‘Protect Dokdo’ activism,
this article examines the similarities and differences between the Dokdo related
narrative and the ideas of the democratization movement of the 1970s and 1980s.
The argument of the article is twofold. First, it argues that there are important simi-
larities between the ways Korean national identity has been constructed in the two
discourses. At the same time, the article identifies important differences between
the two. These differences, it argues, enable the Dokdo related identity construct
to bridge between the democratization movement’s conception of Korean identity
and the conception of national identity advocated by the pre-1987 ruling elites. In
other words, the article argues that the symbolic importance of Dokdo lies not
only in the historical memory of Japanese colonization but is directly related to
post-independence domestic processes in South Korea.
Dokdo/Takeshima, territorial disputes, civil society, national identity, Korea, Japan
Dokdo (Japanese name Takeshima) is the name of two tiny islets in the Sea of
Japan (East Sea in Korean). Since early 1950s, they have been administered by
School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, Victoria University of
Wellington, New Zealand.
Corresponding author:
Alexander Bukh, School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, Victoria
University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand.
E-mail: alexander.bukh@vuw.ac.nz
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
3(2) 183–199
2016 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797016645459
184 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3(2)
the Republic of Korea (Korea) and claimed by Japan. Today, the dispute over
Dokdo/Takeshima islets is one of the main areas of contention between the two
neighbours. The current phase of tensions started to take shape in early 2000s and
since then ‘Dokdo’ became one of the most important national symbols in Korea.
Over the last decade, numerous governmental institutions were established with
the purpose of advocating Korea’s historical rights to the islets through research,
conferences, publications and other activities. During the same period, ‘Protect
Dokdo’ movement has become one of the noticeable features of the Korean society.
The movement is comprised of multiple civil society organizations that engage in
activities aimed at protecting Dokdo, educating the public about the issue and
generally manifest their love and devotion to the islets (Choi, 2005).
In general, the extant academic literature on the issue attributes this prolifera-
tion of civic activism to the symbolic importance of ‘Dokdo’ in the context of
historical memory of Japanese colonialism, the latter being one of the dominant
tropes in Korea’s contemporary national identity (Bong, 2013; Wiegand, 2015).
As this symbolic role is generally taken as a given, none of the extant works actu-
ally examines the arguments and statements made about the dispute by the ‘Protect
Dokdo’ movement. There is no doubt that the anti-Japanese sentiment is an inte-
gral part of the Dokdo related activism. However, in order to provide a more
nuanced interpretation of this movement and its role in today’s Korean society,
here I suggest locating it within the context of civic activism in Korea and its
relationship with the discursively constructed Korean national identity.
The first part of this article will provide a brief historical introduction to the
Dokdo/Takeshima dispute and set the background for the emergence of ‘Protect
Dokdo’ movement in early 2000s. The second part will start with examining the
discursive construction of post-independence Korean identity and the role of the
democratization movement in this construction. This will be followed by a detailed
analysis of Dokdo related narrative promoted by the largest civil society group in
the ‘Protect Dokdo’ movement. This section will argue that, when examined
against the background of civic activism and national identity in Korea, the discur-
sive role of ‘Dokdo’ can be seen as going beyond the construction of the Korean
‘self’ in opposition to Japan. To a large extent, Dokdo related activism can be seen
as an extension of the democratization movement of the 1970s–1980s. The narra-
tive on Dokdo, it will be argued, plays an important role in stabilizing Korean
national identity after the transition to democracy and related developments.
Dokdo/Takeshima Dispute
Since there are numerous academic works that examine the history of the Dokdo/
Takeshima dispute (Choi, 2005; Kajimura, 1997; Launius, 2002), this section will
introduce only those aspects that are important for contextualizing the ‘Protect
Dokdo’ movement.
The islets were officially incorporated into Japan’s Shimane Prefecture on
28 January 1905. Today, Japan’s official position argues that this incorporation
was simply an act of confirmation of historical possession. The fact that the

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