OKDO/TAKESHIMA ISLANDS — These two tiny volcanic islands, poking up from the sea like rabbit ears, can be scaled only by wooden steps that ascend almost vertically. A pulley system hauls food to a cafeteria built 300 feet above the waves. The only mailbox on the islands has a notice stenciled on the front, reminding that service will be slow because mail is picked up every two months. “The postal box is a symbolic object,” the sign reads, “implying South Korea’s control.”
The islands, administered by South Korea but claimed by Japan, provide a window into Asia’s fastest-growing problem, the fight over small bits of land that have oversize and symbolic importance.
In the case of these islands, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, the show of Korean control is pushed to extremes: Only two non-government employees live here, a fisherman and his wife, both Koreans. But three South Korean telecommunications companies provide the islands with 3G cellphone service.
The notion of symbolic control has grown increasingly important in recent months amid a region-wide surge of nationalism and upcoming political leadership changes in South Korea, Japan and China. As a result, countries that once played down territorial disputes now use them to foment national pride. These small islands have become dangerous friction points between Asia’s most economically linked countries, with all sides calling their claims irrefutable and just, and brushing aside the idea of compromise.
The fierce dispute between Japan and China over islands in the East China Sea has spurred fears about potential armed conflict, but the dispute over Dokdo has levied a toll of its own. It has stalled military cooperation between Washington’s two closest Asian allies and reignited historical animosities that date back to Japan’s brutal land grab in the region before World War II.
The South Korean government took a dozen foreign journalists to the islands Thursday to underscore its claims. The day started in Seoul at a just-opened downtown Dokdo museum and continued later with a three-hour flight to the islands in time for lunch at the cafeteria, which normally serves the national police who live here on two-month rotations.