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     Jul 26, 2008
Seoul has desert island dreams
By Donald Kirk

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 proposed change.

"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 officially


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 Island.

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 Peninsula".

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 killing.

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.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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