The Mango Mousse Incident: the Flexible Nature of the Dokdo/Takeshima Conflict in Inter-Korean Engagements

By | February 19, 2019 | No Comments

The mango mousse that started it all. | Image: Blue House

Spats over Dokdo/Takeshima are a recurring theme in Northeast Asia. A consequence of lingering territorial disputes, the disagreement is usually between Japan and one of the two Koreas. But it can also be a bone of contention in North-South Korea relations, in which regard it reveals the long-standing dance of attraction and repulsion between the two Koreas. In a new essay for Sino-NK, Ifang Bremer (Leiden University) explores the latest dispute — all started by a delicious mango mousse. — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

The Mango Mousse Incident: the Flexible Nature of the Dokdo/Takeshima Conflict in Inter-Korean Engagements

by Ifang Bremer

At the April 2018 inter-Korean summit, South Korea served a mango mousse dessert featuring a map of a united Korean peninsula. The map included the highly contested Dokdo/Takeshima islets, which are claimed by both South Korea and Japan. The islets are administered by South Korea, which refers to them as “Dokdo”, and since 1956 have been permanently guarded by South Korean Police.1)Sung-jae Choi, “The Politics of the Dokdo Issue,” Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 3 (December 2005): 465–94. Japan refers to the islets as “Takeshima”, and the Japanese government regards them as part of Shimane Prefecture. The Japan Foreign Ministry firmly criticized the mousse map and urged South Korea to rethink the menu. The incident was the latest brawl in Japan-South Korea tensions, a rivalry rooted in the colonization of Korea by Japan during the first half of the twentieth century.2)Sung-jae Choi, “The Politics of the Dokdo Issue,” Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 3 (December 2005): 465–94.

The “Mango Mousse Incident” showed that Dokdo, a borderland remote from North and South Korea, has a special significance for the central governments of both states. Furthermore, as the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict did not have an unduly prominent presence in past North-South Korea summits, the Mango Mousse case revealed a dimension of the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict often left underexposed: the role of Dokdo in inter-Korean relations.

North Korea’s stance on Dokdo ownership is identical to that of the South: both cite historical documents that mention the existence of an ancient state called Usan-guk around the sixth century. Both Koreas believe Usan-guk consisted of modern day Ulleungdo and Dokdo.3)Balazs Szalontai, “Instrumental Nationalism? The Dokdo Problem Through the Lens of North Korean Propaganda and Diplomacy,” Journal of Northeast Asian History 10, no. 2 (2013): 111. However, Pyongyang is less outspoken on the matter than Seoul. This is because, as Balazs Szalontai, one of the few scholars to research North Korea’s Dokdo policy, rightfully observes, for North Korea to acknowledge South Korea’s ownership over the islets would amount to recognizing South Korea as a/the legitimate protector of Korean statehood.4)Ibid., 117. For Pyongyang, this would be deeply problematic, as North Korea regards itself as the sole legitimate guardian of Korean national identity.5)Gi-Wook Shin, James Freda, and Gihong Yi, “The Politics of Ethnic Nationalism in Divided Korea,” Nations and Nationalism 5, no. 4 (October 1999): 478.

However, Dokdo is a returning theme in North-South Korea relations. It reveals the long-standing dance of attraction and repulsion between the two Koreas, mirroring the political conjuncture of North-South Korea relations. In the past, North Korea used the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict to criticize South Korean leaders and disrupt military cooperation between South Korea and Japan. However, today it seems that the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict functions as a “glue” in reunification processes; a development that could change the power balance within East Asia. 

North Korea articulates Korea’s claim to Dokdo on the wall of a North Korean hotel. | Image: Destination Pyongyang

The mango mousse incident is a microcosm of how that new division of power might look in the future: a unified Korea versus Japan. But how did the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict become a part of reunification politics in the first place? Georg Simmel’s conflict-cohesion hypothesis illustrates the mechanisms behind inter-state alliances based on identification of a common enemy. According to the conflict-cohesion hypothesis, a conflict with an out-group, or common enemy, can have two possible outcomes. It can increase the cohesion of the in-group and strengthens political centralization, or it can force antagonistic members of the in-group to repel another. Simmel makes the grim observation that “war with the outside is sometimes the last chance for a state ridden with inner antagonisms to overcome these antagonisms, or else to break up definitely.”6)George Simmel, Conflict And The Web Of Group Affiliations (New York: Free Press, 1955).

This theory, widely adapted in international relations, helps to explain the formation of alliances, as well as the creation or emphasizing of enemies. In Simmel’s terms, the in-group and out-group are not always clearly distinguished. In South Korea, political conservatives might regard North Korea as the out-group. However, recent attempts at reconciliation between the two Koreas reveal a different state of play: a united Korea as in-group, and Japan as clearly defined out-group. In this model, conflict between Japan and a unified Korea is at the basis of group formation, as being partners against a common enemy fosters solidarity among the partners.7)Robert J. Art and Kenneth Neal Waltz, The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004): 17. In this situation, Dokdo acts as a meeting ground for the two Koreas.

Dokdo/Takeshima: North Korea as Rabble-rouser | At times when inter-Korean relations were at a low, North Korea’s involvement in the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict often took a different form: Pyongyang’s criticism of Seoul’s Dokdo policy. According to the conflict-cohesion hypothesis, unity can be formed when antagonistic members of the in-group (North-and South Korea) define a common enemy (Japan) in combination with a will of both parties to restore ties. Likewise, when both in-group members are in conflict with each other, it is not possible to form unity based on an outside enemy. The latter became especially clear during the tenure of President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013), when inter-Korean tensions rose dramatically. In 2011, KCNA attacked Seoul’s “calm diplomacy” towards Japan, after an attempt by Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) officials to visit Dokdo via South Korea. The officials were denied access, and a diplomatic spat between South Korea and Japan followed. In response, KCNA released a report saying that “The situation in Tok Islets has reached such serious pass due to the south Korean authorities’ humiliating and sycophantic ‘calm diplomacy’.” For North Korea, President Lee’s initially cordial relations with Japan caused Tokyo to become more provocative in their claims over Dokdo.

On numerous other occasions, KCNA referred to Seoul’s Dokdo policy as “treason”. In a 1998 KCNA report, a spokesperson for the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (조국평화통일위원회) criticized the 1998 Korea-Japan Fisheries Agreement, which allowed both South Korean and Japan to fish in the waters around Dokdo, writing:

The “agreement” is a treacherous one that abandons the dominium over Tok islet, part of the inviolable territory of Korea, and sells territorial waters to outside forces. The South Korean authorities’ bargaining with the Japanese reactionaries over Tok islet and its surrounding waters is a treacherous act just like the treason of the five traitors of 1905 as it ignores the fact that they belong to the territory and waters of the nation. […] The South Korean authorities must immediately stop the unprecedented treachery, mindful that their pro-Japanese treachery will precipitate their own destruction.

By comparing the South Korean government with the infamous five ministers who signed the 1905 Ulsa Treaty that made Korea a colony of Japan, not to mention calling South Korea’s engagements with the Japanese government “treacherous,” “humiliating,” and “indifferent”, the reports create a juxtaposition between the disloyalty of South Korean leaders to the nation, and North Korea as protector of the Korean people against the former colonizer. Therefore, it seems that North Korea aimed to create domestic turmoil in South Korea by criticizing Seoul’s Dokdo policy.

This claim might seem rather bold; however, the past has demonstrated that South Korean leaders are highly susceptible to public opinion of how the government handles conflicts with the old foe. In 2012, South Korea and Japan called off a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), both of which were meant to improve and increase the sharing of military intelligence on North Korea. The agreements were cancelled due to severe domestic criticism of military cooperation with Japan, as many South Koreans regard Japan’s stance on historical disputes, such as the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict and the Comfort Women issue, unacceptable. Consequently, the cancelation of the treaties shows that the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict is in the way of full-fledged Japan-South Korea military cooperation. From a security standpoint, North Korea indeed benefits from the dissatisfaction of the South Korean public towards treaties with Japan.

Furthermore, in face of the criticism over GSOMIA, President Lee attempted to regain domestic support by paying an unexpected visit to Dokdo in August 2012.8)Sung Chul Kim, Partnership Within Hierarchy : The Evolving East Asian Security Triangle (Albany: Suny Press, 2017), 182. As Lee was the first South Korean president to visit the islets, the trip undoubtedly elevated their status as symbol of Korean national resistance against Japan. More importantly, the KCNA’s critiques of Seoul’s supposed inability to protect Dokdo, and President Lee’s visit, both show that the islets are a political instrument for both sides.

Dokdo as Reunification Glue | Today, we are looking at a radically different political landscape compared to 2012. North-and South Korea have been holding semi-regular summits, and Dokdo provides reunification glue rather than a source of conflict. A joint North-South Korea Dokdo outing first appeared at the 2003 Asian Games, when Dokdo was included on the Korean Unification Flag, a flag that represents the two Korea’s together. The flag appeared again at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun and more recently, at the Pyeongchang Paralympics last year.9)Shawn Ho, “Pyeongchang Winter Olympics – What’s Behind the Korean Unification Flag?,” RSIS Commentaries, February 8, 2018. Like previous instances, North Korea wished to include Dokdo on a unified North-South Korea flag during the opening ceremony. This time however, South Korea refused, as it would go against the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) recommendation not to politicize sporting events. Considering that for South Korea, the inclusion of Dokdo on the Unification Flag was not a problem in the past, this case shows the capricious nature of Dokdo-related political decisions amidst inter-Korean relations.

However, the view that Dokdo should have a central position in the reunification process remained, especially among South Korean Dokdo-related civic activist groups. As Alexander Bukh highlights, these groups believe that “Dokdo has the potential of uniting all of the members of the nation (South, North and overseas Koreans) and fostering the emergence of a true autonomous consciousness for the nation, which in turn will bring national unification.”10)Alexander Bukh, “Korean National Identity, Civic Activism and the Dokdo/Takeshima Territorial Dispute,” Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3, no. 2 (August 1, 2016): 195. In South Korea, there is widespread support among people of all ages and all ideological backgrounds for protecting the Dokdo islets as Korean territory.11)Brandon Palmer and Laura Whitefleet-Smith, “Assimilating Dokdo: The Islets in Korean Everyday Life,” ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts 23, no. 1 (March 1, 2016): 26. Japan’s claim over Dokdo is largely based on the 1951 San Francisco Peace treaty, which failed to recognize Dokdo as sovereign Korean territory. For that reason, civic activist groups, like most South Koreans, relate the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict directly to the colonization of Korea by Japan and the division of North-and South Korea. Consequently, they argue, expressing love for the nation through Dokdo is the “ultimate cure”12)Ibid., 195. for reunifying the peninsula.

The central role of Dokdo in inter-Korean engagements reached a climax during last year’s April 27 North-South Korean summit, with the inclusion of Dokdo on the infamous mango mousse. The dessert, named “Spring of the People” (민족의 봄), consisted of a mousse covered by a chocolate ball that had to be cracked open by a hammer. Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in ceremonially opened the dessert together, symbolizing a fresh start for reunification, whilst the presence of Dokdo on the the dessert emphasized the out-group, Japan, in the process. In this way, the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict became a means for North-and South Korea to overcome antagonisms by shifting the focus to Japan as common enemy.

Conclusion | For North Korea, the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict provides a space in which to foster conflict over Seoul’s Dokdo policy within South Korean society. This is perfectly logical. The cancelation of the GSOMIA treaty in 2011 demonstrates that discontent over Japan’s claim to the islets among the South Koreans can obstruct military collaborations between Japan and South Korea, which is beneficial for North Korea. But paradoxically, Dokdo also functions as cement in the process of (nominally) reunifying the peninsula. A common ground for the two Korea’s, Dokdo has played a leading part in recent summits and joint sporting events. The islets lay bare a power play of attraction and repulsion between North-and South Korea that can affect the power balance in the Northeast Asian region.

This may imply future deterioration of already-strained ties between South Korea and Japan, unless or until inter-Korean relations sour. With North-and South Korea as unified in-group and Japan as clearly defined out-group, reconciliation between South Korea and Japan will be nearly impossible and anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea will likely rise. Furthermore, the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict as stepping stone for reunification could provide the Japanese government with more grounds for advocating the abolishment of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes, as Japan will be less likely to rely on South Korea for military cooperation.

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1. Sung-jae Choi, “The Politics of the Dokdo Issue,” Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 3 (December 2005): 465–94.
2. Sung-jae Choi, “The Politics of the Dokdo Issue,” Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 3 (December 2005): 465–94.
3. Balazs Szalontai, “Instrumental Nationalism? The Dokdo Problem Through the Lens of North Korean Propaganda and Diplomacy,” Journal of Northeast Asian History 10, no. 2 (2013): 111.
4. Ibid., 117.
5. Gi-Wook Shin, James Freda, and Gihong Yi, “The Politics of Ethnic Nationalism in Divided Korea,” Nations and Nationalism 5, no. 4 (October 1999): 478.
6. George Simmel, Conflict And The Web Of Group Affiliations (New York: Free Press, 1955).
7. Robert J. Art and Kenneth Neal Waltz, The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004): 17.
8. Sung Chul Kim, Partnership Within Hierarchy : The Evolving East Asian Security Triangle (Albany: Suny Press, 2017), 182.
9. Shawn Ho, “Pyeongchang Winter Olympics – What’s Behind the Korean Unification Flag?,” RSIS Commentaries, February 8, 2018.
10. Alexander Bukh, “Korean National Identity, Civic Activism and the Dokdo/Takeshima Territorial Dispute,” Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3, no. 2 (August 1, 2016): 195.
11. Brandon Palmer and Laura Whitefleet-Smith, “Assimilating Dokdo: The Islets in Korean Everyday Life,” ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts 23, no. 1 (March 1, 2016): 26.
12. Ibid., 195.

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