WASHINGTON - It began with word that a librarian at the US Library of Congress
wanted to list a group of rocky islets in the East Sea, aka the Sea of Japan,
as Liancourt Rocks rather than the Korean name, Dokdo, Tok Island. The chair of
the committee on Korean materials of the Council on East Asian Libraries of the
Association for Asian Studies was "shocked", yes "shocked", to learn of the
"Since this plan was not widely known," wrote Hana Kim, "our organization took
it upon ourselves to voice a strong protest to this sudden change, and also
made the relevant South Korean governmental bodies aware of this situation."
The result: "I am pleased to report that the Library of Congress has now
postponed any decision in this matter until there is further international
resolution of this issue."
For a moment there one had reason to fear an outbreak of hostilities ignited by
a flurry of e-mails and blogs by partisans on all sides. The basic question
asked by indignant bloggers: How dare they? How could anyone at such an august
and influential institution as the Library of Congress imagine calling those
Korean-owned rocks out there in the East Sea - and please don't even think
about calling it the Sea of Japan - by anything other than Dokdo?
The dispute over the name, though not the ownership, of the islets might have
seemed to have been laid to rest with that very diplomatic decision by the
Library of Congress, but the debate reverberates on the Internet between those
who claim the islands are clearly Korea's, those who express doubts - and a few
hardy souls who support Japan's claim.
The fact that a South Korean garrison occupies the islets would seem to give
South Korea the edge, but Japan's persistent insinuations of ownership
regularly arouse deeply nationalist sentiments on both sides.
In the midst of bitter recriminations between South and North Korea over the
killing of a South Korean tourist last week in North Korea's Mount Kumkang
region and nonstop debate over the North's nuclear program, South Korea has
gone into almost emergency mode over Japan's description of the islets as
"disputed land" in an educational hand book.
A task force is now deputized in Seoul with the responsibility of deciding
where to go next on the issue. And in case the Japanese fail to comprehend the
depth of emotions, demonstrators have been burning Japanese flags and throwing
eggs at the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul.
"All ministries should join hands to make clear to the international community
that Dokdo belongs to Korea," said Prime Minister Han Seung-soo, according to
South Korea's Yonhap news agency. It was, he said, "time to more actively
tackle the issue on a governmental basis".
Under the circumstances, one can hardly blame some hopeful compromiser at the
Library of Congress for thinking that one way out of the whole problem was to
catalogue them as Liancourt Rocks, the name that a French expedition gave the
islets after the whaling ship Le Liancourt almost crashed on the rocks.
The Koreans have long insisted, however, on archival evidence that Dokdo,
meaning solitary island, was claimed by Koreans long before Japan annexed them
in 1905 shortly before taking over all Korea with the full authority of the
Treaty of Portsmouth brokered by US president Theodore Roosevelt to confirm
Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese war.
The deal, as far as the Americans and Japanese were concerned, was for the US
to have free reign over the Philippines, which US troops had just finished
conquering, and for Japan to hold sway over the Korean Peninsula. Far from
regarding the islets as part of Korea, however, the Japanese said they were
off-shore extensions of Shimane prefecture and dubbed them Takeshima, Bamboo
With the end of World War II, however, Japan lost its tenuous hold over the
islets, which at the time were uninhabited. The victorious Americans, after
using them for a time as a bombing range, turned them over to South Korea.
Ancient claims aside, that move had a certain logic since the islets, actually
two major outcroppings, plus a number of other lesser rocks and reefs, are
closer to Korea than to Japan by a margin of 217 kilometers from the former,
250 from the latter.
Although acrimony over the islets may appear analogous to making a mountain out
of a molehill, the anger spilled over at this week's regional forum of the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Singapore.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan spurned a proposal for a bilateral
meeting with his counterpart from Japan, Masahiko Komura. That seemed just
about as bad as North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun refusing to meet Yu
for a bilateral while charging that South Korea's government, under
conservative President Lee Myung-bak, had "endangered peace on the Korean
Pak was no doubt upset by Yu's lobbying with other ministers - except for
Komura - for support for an investigation into the death of the 53-year-old
South Korean housewife shot by North Korean guards after she strayed off the
beaten track during a tour of the Mount Kumkang zone on North Korea's east
coast. North Korea has rejected South Korean pleas for its own investigation of
The North Korean snub of Yu was all the more pointed in view of Pak's handshake
during a break in the meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and
then with North Korea's pledge to become the 15th signatory of a treaty of
amity and cooperation with the 10 ASEAN countries.
North Korea has reason to be grateful for President George W Bush's initiation
of steps to remove the North from the list of terrorist states and lift
economic sanctions, even though Rice put on a show of toughness, talking about
the need for a system of verification of whatever the North claims to have done
about getting rid of its nukes.
"Everybody believes they have got to respond and respond positively on
verification," said Rice, expressing doubts about North Korea's acknowledgement
of 37 kilograms of plutonium extracted from its reactor in Yongbyon.
With analysts convinced North Korea has produced 50 kilograms of plutonium,
Rice hinted at a delay in removing the North from the US list of state sponsors
of terrorism. The North Korean declaration on its plutonium "has left some
questions", she said, and "nobody is going to trust the North Korean number".
If nothing else, clearly North Korea has succeeded in isolating South Korea at
a time when South Korea can hardly afford a worsening relationship with Japan.
It may have been for that reason that South Korean officials have been tamping
down the outrage of late. Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee opposed beefing up the
37 or so policemen on Dokdo with a marine contingent, warning of the danger of
"armed confrontation with Japan".
Instead, South Korea's ambassador to Japan, Kwon Chul-hyun, recalled to Seoul
at the outset of the latest Dokdo controversy, cautioned against "a premature
move" that could "trigger an international dispute over the islets" - even
though, he interjected, they "surely belong to us".
But why, analysts sometimes ask, does South Korea rev up concerns about Dokdo
just when they're needed to deflect attention from other problems. While
hundreds still show up daily for candlelit protests against the import of US
beef, that particular ruckus is in danger of slipping from the news while Dokdo
steals the headlines.
If there is one issue on which all foes agree in Korea, it's Korea's claim to
Dokdo. North Korea has issued a statement emphatically protesting Japan's
claims, and political foes of the conservative government of Lee also stoutly
assert Korea's rights.
The A word - A for apology - comes up a lot.
Lee's leftist critics have berated him for not demanding an apology from Japan
over the islands while Lee is demanding North Korea apologize for the killing
of the housewife. So far no one has suggested that Lee and his foes settle on
demanding apologies from both North Korea and Japan.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.