The Liancourt Rocks, also known as Dokdo (독도/獨島, literally "solitary island") in Korean, and Takeshima (たけしま/竹島, literally "bamboo island") in Japanese, are a group of small islets in the Sea of Japan. Sovereignty over the islets is disputed between Japan and South Korea. South Korea classifies the islets as Dokdo-ri, Ulleung-eup, Ulleung County, Northern Gyeongsang Province. Japan classifies them as part of Okinoshima, Oki District, Shimane Prefecture.
The Franco-English name of the islets derives from Le Liancourt, the name of a French whaling ship which came close to being wrecked on the rocks in 1849. The Liancourt Rocks consist of two main islets and 35 smaller rocks; the total surface area of the islets is 0.18745 square kilometres (46.32 acres), with the highest elevation of 169 metres (554 ft) found at an unnamed location on the west islet. The Liancourt Rocks lie in rich fishing grounds which may contain large deposits of natural gas.
The Liancourt Rocks consist of two main islets and numerous surrounding rocks. The two main islets, called Seodo (서도/西島, "Western Island") and Dongdo (동도/東島, "Eastern Island") in Korean, and Otokojima (おとこじま/男島, "Male Island") and Onnajima (おんなじま/女島, "Female Island") in Japanese, are 151 metres (495 ft) apart. The Western Island is the larger of the two, with a wider base and higher peak, while the Eastern Island offers more usable surface area.
Altogether, there are about 90 islets and reefs, volcanic rocks formed in the Cenozoic era, more specifically 4.6 to 2.0 million years ago. A total of 37 of these islets are recognized as permanent land.
The total area of the islets is about 187,450 square metres (46.32 acres), with their highest point at 169 metres (554 ft) on the West Islet. The western islet is about 88,640 square metres (21.90 acres); the eastern islet is about 73,300 square metres (18.1 acres).
The western islet consists of a single peak and features many caves along the coastline. The cliffs of the eastern islet are about 10 to 20 metres (33 to 66 ft) high. There are two large caves giving access to the sea, as well as a crater. In 2006, a geologist reported that the islets formed 4.5 million years ago and are quickly eroding.
Liancourt Rocks are located at about 131°52′ East longitude and about 37°14′ North latitude. The western islet is located at 37°14′31″N 131°51′55″E and the eastern islet is located at 37°14′27″N 131°52′10″E.
Liancourt Rocks are situated at a distance of 216.8 kilometres (117.1 nmi) from mainland Korea and 211 kilometres (114 nmi) from the main island of Japan (Honshu). The nearest Korean island, Ulleung-do, is at a distance of 87.4 kilometres (47.2 nmi), while the distance to the nearest Japanese island, Oki Islands, is 157 kilometres (85 nmi).
Due to their location and extremely small size, the Liancourt Rocks can have harsh weather. During the winter, ships are sometimes unable to dock because of strong northwestern winds. Overall, the climate is warm and humid, and heavily influenced by warm sea currents. Precipitation is high throughout the year (annual average—1,324 millimetres or 52.1 inches), with occasional snowfall. Fog is also a common sight. In the summer, southerly winds dominate. The water around the islets is about 10°C (50°F) in spring, when the water is coolest. It warms to about 25°C (77 °F) in August.
The islets are volcanic rocks, with only a thin layer of soil and moss. About 49 plant species, 107 bird species, and 93 insect species have been found to inhabit the islets, in addition to local marine life with 160 algal and 368 invertebrate species identified. Although between 1,100 and 1,200 litres of fresh water flow daily, desalinization plants have been installed on the islets for human consumption because existing spring water suffers from guano contamination. Since the early 1970s trees and some types of flowers were planted. According to historical records, there used to be trees indigenous to Liancourt Rocks, which have supposedly been wiped out by overharvesting and fires caused by bombing drills over the islets. A recent investigation, however, identified ten spindle trees aged 100–120 years.
Records of the human impact on the Liancourt Rocks before the late 20th century are scarce, although both Japanese and Koreans claim to have felled trees and killed Japanese sea lions there for many decades. There is a serious concern for pollution in the seas surrounding Liancourt Rocks. The sewage water treatment system established on the islets has malfunctioned and sewage water produced by inhabitants of the Liancourt Rocks such as South Korean Coast Guard and lighthouse staff is being dumped directly into the ocean. Significant water pollution has been observed; sea water has turned milky white, sea vegetation is progressively dying off, and calcification of coral reefs is spreading. The pollution is also causing loss of biodiversity in the surrounding seas. In November 2004, eight tons of malodorous sludge was being dumped into the ocean every day. Efforts have since been made by both public and private organizations to help curb the level of pollution surrounding the Rocks.
From March 1965 - Choi Jong-duk, a resident of Ulleung-do, started to dwell on the islets to make a living from fishing. He also helped install facilities from May 1968. In 1981, Choi Jong-duk changed his administrative address to the Liancourt Rocks, making himself the first person to officially live there. He died there in September 1987. His son-in-law, Cho Jun-ki, and his wife also resided there from 1985 until they moved out in 1992. Meanwhile in 1991, Kim Sung-do and Kim Shin-yeol transferred to the islets as permanent residents, still continuing to live there. In addition to these residents, there are 37 South Korean national police officers on guard duty.There are also three Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries personnel, and three lighthouse keepers staying on the islets in rotation.
Since the South Korean Coast Guard was sent to the islets, civilian travel was subject to South Korean government approval; they have claimed that the reason for this is that the islet group is designated as a nature reserve.
The South Korean government gave its approval to allow 1,597 visitors to visit the islets in 2004. Since March 2005, more tourists have received approval to visit. The South Korean government lets up to 70 tourists land at any one given time; one ferry provides rides to the islets every day. En route to Liancourt Rocks, the ferry shows an animated film featuring a giant robot warding off Japanese. Tour companies charge around 350,000 Korean won per person (approx. 250 US dollars as of 2009).
South Korea has carried out a lot of construction work on the Liancourt Rocks. Today, the islands house a lighthouse, a helicopter pad, a large South Korean flag visible from the air, a post box, a staircase, and police barracks. In 2007, two desalinization plants were built capable of producing 28 tons of clean water every day. Both of the major South Korean telecommunications companies have installed cellular telephone towers on the islets.
Sovereignty over the islands has been an ongoing point of contention in Japan–South Korea relations. There are conflicting interpretations about the historical state of sovereignty over the islets. Korean claims are partly based on references to an island called Usan-do (우산도, 于山島/亐山島) in various medieval historical records, maps, and encyclopedia such as Samguk Sagi, Annals of Joseon Dynasty, Dongguk Yeoji Seungnam and Dongguk munhon bigo. According to the Korean view, these refer to today's Liancourt Rocks.
Japanese researchers of these documents have claimed the various references to Usan-do refer at different times to Jukdo, its neighboring island Ulleungdo, or a non-existent island between Ulleungdo and Korea. (The first printed usage of the name Dokdo was in a Japanese log book in 1904). Other key points of the dispute involve the legal basis which Japan used to claim the islands in 1905, and the legal basis of South Korea's claim on the islands in 1952. North Korea reportedly supports South Korea's claim.