Stamps on the Rocks

Stamps are a great way to assert territorial aspirations over a contested place. Simply by showing your position on such a (tiny) official seal, the claim is legitimized and affirmed. This can be done in a number of ways, one of which is annexing the territory on the map. This is a story of how stamps can be the cause of a diplomatic riot.

Between Japan and South Korea lies a small group of islands, mostly rocks and islets. In Japan they are called the Takeshima Islands, in Korea they are known as the Dokdo or the Toklet Islands—depending on whether you live in North or South Korea. The rest of the world knows them as the Liancourt Rocks, named after the French whaling ship Le Liancourt that shipwrecked in the area in 1849.

The islands have been disputed between Japan and Korea for centuries. The first ownership of the islands has never been clear since different names were given to the islands and there are ambiguities in early historical maps and records. Both Japan and Korea interpreted these maps to their own benefit.

After the second World War it was decided by the Allied forces that the islands were not to be returned to Japan, who occupied these territories in the war. Japan interpreted the treaties regarding this area differently and claimed the islands based on historical evidence. But since 1954 the islands are administered by South Korea and the South Korean Coast Guard is present.

Series of stamps, 2, 5, 10 Hwan, South Korea, 1954.

In that same year, South Korea released the first stamps depicting the Liancourt Rocks in order to give their claim more presence. The two smaller nominations of 2 and 5 Hwan show Candlestick Rock and Three Brothers Cave—the small characteristic rocks that stand between the biggest islands—while the larger nomination of 10 Hwan shows the largest of the two islands from the Northwest. The Japanese government protested against these stamps, declaring them non valid.

Stamp from the ‘My Hometown’ series, 190 won, South Korea, 2002.

In 2002 the Liancourt Rocks were again featured in a stamp series themed ‘My Hometown’. As a result of the Philakorea 2002 World Stamp Exhibition, thirty-two stamps were published showing various cultural highlights of Korea. One of the stamps shows an aerial photograph of the two largest islands. Japan did not give much attention to this stamp, perhaps because it was embedded in a larger series.
But then in January 2004 the South Korean government published the following set.

Stampset, Nature of Dokdo, South Korea, 2004.

The stamps show the fauna and the flora of the islands. (There is a certain irony to this topic as the Korean Coast Guard and light house staff directly dump their wastewater in the ocean, causing pollution around the islands.) These stamps caused an enormous uproar. The announcement alone was enough for the Japanese government to file an official complaint and this increased the interest among the Korean public in these stamps. As a result, there was a run on the Korean post offices and over 2.2 million stamps were sold out in less than three hours—the Koreans saw it as their patriotic duty to buy the stamps. There was an effort by an unidentified Japanese man who tried to order 100.000 custom designed stamps, worth 10 million yen (around 80.000 euro) with his own photograph of the island, but this was rejected by Japan Post stating that this would blow up the dispute even further.

On October 1, 2004, the Japanese government did issue their own stamps in protest of the Korean issue of Dokdo stamps. They also announced that from 2005 on, February 22 would be Takeshima Day.

Not only did the South Koreans release a stamp.
The North Koreans did as well.
This stamp was also published in 2004.

On the stamp a historical map of 18th century Korea is featured with the islands pointed out in a red frame to give the claim more weight. The red text on top translates as Dokdo Island. What is remarkable that the lighthouse shown on this stamp is manned by the South Korean Coast Guard.

Environment of Dokdo Islands, North Korea, 2005.

This stamp published a year later has a very particular shape, as if looking at the islands through binoculars like the Korean guards at the Demilitarized Zone or Joint Security Area between North and South Korea.

North Korean Guard at the border. Creative Commons

The theme of the stamp is the ecological environment of the islands. The stamp shows various flowers and animals, similar to the South Korean stamp. It also tells the size of the largest islands in surface and in height.

Tok Islet of Korea, North Korea, 30 won, 2014.

On this stamp from North Korea, published in 2014, you see the two main islands, mapped in contour lines and the same photograph which was also used in 2004. All the rocks surrounding the larger islands are labeled (Tanggun Rock, Jinnae Rock, Three Brothers Cave, Gunham Rock, Chicken Rock, Chodae Rock, Panum Rock, Face Rock) and there is a small blue map of a united Korea. The islands are again located in a small red frame. All of the North Korean stamps show this blue map of a united Korea.

This emblematic blue map of Korea was originally drawn for the Unification Flag of Korea. A reversed image resembling the UN flag in color and motif, it was designed in 1991 intending to represent both North and South Korea when participating as one team in a sporting event.

The flag has been used on several occasions, including the 41st World Table Tennis Championships in 1991 in Japan. The Liancourt Rocks were not included in this version. They did appear on the Unification Flag from 2003 on but were removed in 2018, leading up to the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, after protest from the Japanese government.

The Korean Unification Flag at the Seoul World Cup Stadium during a friendly match between the two Koreas, 14 August 2005. Timothy Friesen, Flickr

Perhaps the South Koreans had these stamps with the unified map in mind when they were serving Kim Jong Un his desert at an inter-Korean Summit in 2018. The desert was a mango mousse with a map of the Korean peninsula, including the contested islands. This caused Japan to file an official complaint.

Mango mousse served during the North-South Korean summit with the small chocolate showing the unification symbol. Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in ceremonially opened the dessert together. South Korean Government Hand Out

According to scholars, the flag is used with a different intention by South and North Korea. They claim that South Korea sees it as a way to mark their peaceful relation and coexistence with North Korea, while for North Korea it represents its desire to annex the South. But one thing is clear, they stand united against their mutual enemy Japan.