Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.02.22

Governmental and Private Sector Negotiations Regarding Ulleungdo and Takeshima

Ulleungdo is an island abundant in wood and bamboo, and, in the surrounding sea, fish, shellfish, and seals. Japanese fishermen who were based in Yonago and nearby areas used to sail in those waters. An entry in an old book says that the abalones harvested from there are "quite large and, cooked on a skewer, are incomparably delicious"; the Tottori clan presented them to the Shogunate and other important figures in Japan's feudal government. As Ulleungdo belonged to the Chosun Dynasty at the time, Koreans fished those waters and friction often arose from Japanese landing on the island.

In the Genroku era (1688-1704), upon receipt of grievances from the Chosun Dynasty, the Edo Shogunate came to the conclusion that Ulleungdo does not belong to Japan and, as a result, forbade Japanese from visiting the island. During these deliberations, both Japan and Korea remained quite cool-headed.

At that time, the shortest route between Japan and the Korean Peninsula was via Tsushima and the traffic was busy. If one goes around Ulleungdo and Takeshima, the distance between the two is longer, but if one travels via these islands and Okinoshima, then the journey between Japan and the Korean Peninsula would have been quite easy.

That, at that time, the journey was not all that difficult is made evident by a Korean named An Yong-bok. He was an ordinary fisherman, but he became well-known after he came into contact with the Japanese on Ulleungdo. He is a controversial figure, regarded as a hero in Korea, although the Japanese have labeled him a liar; however, the record of his behavior and statements is quite fascinating.

First, in 1693 (Genroku 6), Japanese brought An Yong-bok and another Korean fisherman to Yonago (in present day Tottori prefecture). This may appear to have been the arrest of illegal fishermen, but, apparently, they were brought to Japan with Korean consent. An Yong-bok had been on Ulleungdo with dozens of other fishermen when the Japanese arrived; had the Japanese brought An Yong-bok to Japan against his will, that would have led to an incident, but there is no evidence of any such.

If, indeed, Koreans had consented, what was their objective in doing so? An Yong-bok spoke Japanese. Therefore, one can surmise that he was delegated to request that the Japanese government forbid its citizens from visiting Ulleungdo. The Japanese may have been interested in hearing directly from him Koreans' views of the situation in their country. In any event, it is notable that An Yong-bok came to Japan in peace even though the interests of the Japanese and the Koreans were in conflict.

Second, during his stay in Japan, An Yong-bok was treated rather well . He was given sake on Okinoshima. He was brought to Yonago, where he stayed a while, and he then traveled to Tottori, Nagasaki, and Tsushima before heading home. One record states that he was feasted on his way to Nagasaki. Upon his return, An Yong-bok himself said that his treatment worsened in Nagasaki and Tsushima. One can readily imagine that to be the case, because, as people in Nagasaki and Tsuhima had experience in dealing with many Koreans, they might have been less inclined to be kind. An interesting fact is just how well treated he was by the Tottori clan. Not only was he feasted, but also his "interrogation" was conducted by none other than their chief retainer. The chief retainer must have been more interested in learning about situation in Korea from a Korean who spoke Japanese than in "interrogating" him.

Third, two years after he returned home, An Yong-bok, with ten other Koreans, sailed to Akasaki, Tottori, in a boat with large flags. This time, he was not brought to Japan, but he came voluntarily. The reason for his visit remains unknown, and is even murkier than that of his first visit. This second visit happened during official diplomatic negotiations regarding Ulleungdo, which had been initiated immediately upon An Yong-bok's return home after his first visit. Research has tended to focus on the veracity of his remarks during this second visit and on both his achievements and failures. These are, of course, important. An Yong-bok's second visit must have been made to apply pressure on the Japanese government. It is interesting to note that An Yong-bok appears to have been convinced that he would not be in danger by coming to Japan to state his views. He apparently trusted the Japanese. From this, it seems that Japan-Korean relations during the Genroku era must have been quite peaceful and stable.

The Tottori clan and the Shogunate responded calmly to An Yong-bok's second visit. His group stayed with the clan for about six weeks and then returned home safely. There is no evidence of inhospitable treatment. In fact, An Yong-bok was arrested upon his return home. He is now regarded as a hero in Korea, but things were different back then.

Fourth, while there is no way to ascertain whether and how An Yong-bok's deeds contributed to Japanese-Korean relations, they did prompt diplomatic negotiations between the two countries. That led, as stated at the outset, to the Shogunate's determination that Ulleungdo did not belong to Japan. As for Takeshima (then Matsushima) about which there now is much controversy, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs explains that, unlike Ulleungdo, the Shogunate did not forbid Japanese from visiting the island. Some academics, however, object to this explanation.

As a page out of Japan's diplomatic history, the diplomatic negotiations between the Shogunate and the Koreans are of considerable interest. I hope that scholars and researchers, including those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will bring to light the historical facts.