A bitter territorial disagreement between Japan and South Korea has spilled onto an unlikely new frontier. Recent camera leaks have appeared on rumor blogs with a strange, watermarked message in Japanese — it suggests the website in question supports South Korea's claim to a group of small, remote islands between the Korean peninsula and Japan.
The islets, known as Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese, and the Liancourt Rocks in English, have been administered by South Korea since 1952 and the post-war Treaty of San Francisco. A constant Korean police presence has been maintained. Two South Korean civilians also live on the islets. Historians on both sides have traced the dispute back several centuries, but while Japan claims that it incorporated the territory into one of its prefectures in 1905, South Korea says this was an illegitimate move made as part of its forced annexation.
The debate has simmered for decades, but when Lee Myung-bak became the first South Korean president to visit the islets last year, it sparked angry reactions in Japan, where a right-wing, nationalist fringe has been similarly fired up by another recent territorial conflict with China. Last month the Japanese government published a survey suggesting that over 60 percent of its citizens supported the country's claim to the Liancourt Rocks, riling South Korean politicians.
"This site and its readers recognize it is self-evident that Dokdo is South Korean territory."
"This site and its readers recognize it is self-evident that Dokdo is South Korean territory," reads the watermarked message, which has obscured alleged images of the upcoming Olympus OM-D E-M1 Micro Four Thirds camera as well as accurate leaks of Sony's recently announced QX Smart Lenses. It's not hard to find nationalist sentiment behind either territorial claim both online and off. But hijacking the high interest in Japanese gadgets to get the message out to a tech-savvy audience is an unusual move. Who is behind the leaks?
The tipster apparently doesn't want to be found
43Rumors, a prominent blog with a long record of reporting accurate leaks on Micro Four Thirds cameras, published around 30 images of the alleged E-M1 today, apologizing for the politicized watermarks attached while acknowledging the high quality of the pictures. PhotoRumors, another camera gear blog, this week published leaked press images of the Sony Smart Lenses with the same pro-Korean watermark airbrushed away.
"I am going to link to the images now because you really see the E-M1 (and battery grip and lenses) from all possible angles," reads the 43Rumors post. But the site's administrator, who goes by the name "Ale," is none the wiser as to where they came from. Ale tells The Verge that the pictures were sent via the site's anonymous contact form, meaning that he has "no way" to get back in touch. The tipster also apparently doesn't want to be found; Ale believes he or she has been using Tor to block their IP address, and PhotoRumors' administrator tells The Verge that the received submissions suggest the use of proxies.
In-mook Lee, a reporter for major South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo, says the Liancourt dispute opens wounds for many Koreans. "Koreans don't recognize Dokdo as a 'territorial dispute' because the classification of Dokdo as Takeshima under Japanese territory occurred during Japan's forced occupation of Korea," he says. "The claim of Dokdo under Japanese domain reminds Korea of Imperial Japan."
"There is no direct link between the way Koreans view Japan and the way they purchase Japanese goods."
But Lee stops short of suggesting the cameras' Japanese origin would provide motivation for the tipster's actions. "There is no direct link between the way Koreans view Japan and the way they purchase Japanese goods," he tells The Verge. "As long as the company's not a war criminal, Koreans do not feel any repulsion against Japanese corporations or their products. The reason Japanese products are not selling, however, is because they're relatively less marketable compared to those of Korean companies such as Samsung and LG."
So far the pro-Korean messaging only appears to have shown up on photography sites, so it naturally follows that the products in question are Japanese in origin: cameras are one of the few categories of consumer electronics where the likes of Samsung have been unable to make a dent in Japanese dominance. It's entirely possible, then, that the tipster is simply pushing their message onto the leaked information available to them. But the precedent has been set — your favorite gadget blog may now be complicit in posting political propaganda, whether they understand it or not.
Hyunhu Jang contributed to this report.