Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Bush Defuses Island Row

It was a problem that President George W. Bush could easily have done without as he prepared to leave for South Korea, the first stop on his Olympic Games lap through Asia. But unlike some of the other issues that strain South Korean-US relations, such as the free-trade agreement, American beef imports and North Korea strategy, it was easily resolved – for the moment.

Two weeks before his departure for Asia in a trip that will take him to Thailand as well as Beijing to attend the opening days of the 2008 Olympic Games, an obscure US government agency charged with establishing international geographic names said the Dokdo islands were not South Korean territory.

Rather, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) revised its description to say they were of “undesignated sovereignty.” Adding insult to injury, from Seoul’s point of view, it placed the Japanese designation of the islands, Takeshima, ahead of the Korean version, Dokdo as alternate names.

The US Board on Geographic Names is a federal body created in 1890 to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the federal government. Its chairman, Gregory W. Boughton, works for the Central Intelligence Agency. Foreign names are mainly addressed by experts from the CIA and the State Department.

The BGN uses the name Liancourt Rocks to designate the outcroppings rather than either of the Korean or Japanese names. It refers to a French ship, Le Liancourt, which is said to have carried the first Europeans to sight the rocks in the mid-nineteenth century. The recent change in sovereignty designation did not change that nomenclature, but the action nevertheless set off a storm in South Korea.

The Dokdo are located in the Sea of Japan, about 200 kilometers off the western side of Honshu, Japan’s main island. The total surface area of the group (there are two main rocks) is about 200,000 sq meters. The rocks are basically uninhabitable, but South Korea maintains a small presence to underscore its claim to sovereignty.

South Korea strongly asserted its claim beginning in 1952, when then President Syngman Rhee unilaterally extended what is called the Syngman Rhee Line into the waters between Japan and Korea, placing the disputed islands inside the claimed territory.

Anytime Japan makes a move to assert its own counter claim to the islands is sure to raise nationalist hackles, expose barely suppressed anti-Japanese feelings and lead to the recalling of ambassadors. The latest incident arose only a few weeks ago after Japan’s education ministry issued new guidelines for junior high school students emphasizing the teaching that that the Korean-controlled islands were “an integral part of Japan.”

That action prompted Seoul to recall its ambassador to Japan, Kwon Chul Hyun, back for consultations in mid-July, He returned to Tokyo Aug. 5.

The proximity of the ministry’s actions and that of the geographic board led some in Korea to suspect collusion, although there is no evidence that the Japanese had tried to influence the board’s decision. Many were also stunned that a great power, like the U.S., friend and ally of South Korea, was dropping its studied neutrality.

“[The board’s] move is nothing short of backing the Japanese invasion of the Korean Peninsula,” thundered the Dong A Ilbo newspaper in an editorial.

A State Department spokesman insisted that it was all a mistake, an action of technicians who were not fully aware of the political implications. Spokesman Gonzalo Galegos insisted that, “The U.S. position for decades has been not to take a position regarding sovereignty of the islands in questions. We’d welcome any outcome agreed by both Korea and Japan.”

President Bush quickly ordered the board to reverse the decision. “The data base will be restored where it was seven days ago,” Bush told reporters for South Korean, Chinese and Thai newspapers at a pre-trip interview on July 29. Dennis Wilder, head of Asian Affairs for the National Security Council, said he regretted any perception of a change in policy. “I feel like we just escaped from hell,” said one unidentified official from the South Korean foreign Ministry.

While the Koreans were pleased with the president’s swift action, they were put on notice that what was once an obscure dispute between Japan and Korea could draw in other nations. The foreign ministry has set up what it calls the Dokdo Task Force to keep track of any other name changes, and Prime Minister Han Seung Soo visited the island on July 29, the first Korean prime minister to set foot on the islands.

The last time the Dokdo/Takeshima issue flared up was three years ago when the Shimane prefectural assembly, representing the province closest to Dokdo, established “Takeshima Day” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Tokyo’s formal annexation of the rocks (and assigning them to Shimane’s jurisdiction).

The date is pregnant in that it commemorates the year 1905 when, in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War, Tokyo began to assert sovereignty over all of Korea, which culminated in the formal annexation and colonization in 1910. Thus the island issue is inevitably wrapped up in Korean minds with a dark time in its history.

The Koreans trace their claim the islands considerably farther back in history. In the Korean view, King Jijeung incorporated the islets into the Shilla Kingdom in the year 512, meaning they have been a part of Korea for some 1,500 years.

The surrounding waters are said to be teeming with fish, shell fish and edible seaweed. Exploitation of these and other resources are governed by a 1999 fishing treaty between the two countries, which set up a temporary method of operation since the question of defining economic zones cannot be completed while the sovereignty issues are unresolved. But whenever the issue flares, there is some dark talk by Koreans of abrogating the treaty to punish Japan.

For his part, President Bush neatly defused a seemingly trivial but still emotionally evocative issue before he landed in Seoul. If only the other contentious issues with South Korea, such as the free trade agreement, beef exports, troop alignment and strategy for North Korea were that easy.


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