The Decider Defuses an Island Row

Almost the first thing embattled Korean President Lee Myung Bak did when George W Bush got off Air Force One today in Seoul was to thank the American president for personally intervening to defuse a crisis over a handful of rocks in the Sea of Japan after an obscure US government agency inadvertently inserted itself into a decades-old squabble between South Korea and Japan.

It was a problem 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 a pending free-trade agreement, anger over imports of US beef, and how to handle North Korea’s nuclear program, it was easily resolved – for the moment.

Two weeks before his departure, the US Board of Geographic Names, which is charged with establishing international geographic names, said the Dokdo islands belonged to no one. Japan and South Korea have been bickering over Dokdo, which lies 200 kilometers off the western side of Japan’s Honshu Island, for years. The board revised its description to say the islands 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 was 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 board, in an effort at neutrality, uses the name Liancourt Rocks to designate the outcroppings rather than either of the Korean or Japanese names. That name 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, where the islands inspire fierce patriotic devotion and revive memories of Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea from 1906 to 1945.

The total surface area of the entire 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 former 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. Any time Japan makes a move to assert its own counter claim to the islands it 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 that the Korean-controlled islands were “an integral part of Japan.”

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

The proximity of the ministry’s actions and that of the US board led some in Korea to suspect collusion, although there is no evidence that the Japanese had tried to influence the naming decision. Many were also stunned that a great power like the US, a 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. State Department Spokesman Gonzalo Galegos insisted that, “The US 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 database 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 rocks on July 29, the first Korean prime minister to set foot there.

The last time the Dokdo/Takeshima issue flared up serious was three years ago when the Shimane prefectural assembly, representing the Japanese province closest to the islets, 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 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. 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 to King Jijeung, who 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 also said to be teeming with fish, shellfish 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 dark talk by Koreans of abrogating the treaty to punish Japan.

For his part, President Bush neatly defused a seemingly trivial but still emotional issue before he landed in Seoul. If only other contentious issues with South Korea were that easy.