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Bush reverses U.S. stance on status of Dokdo islets

Quick move a surprise sure to brighten relationship  PLAY AUDIO

Aug 01,2008
After U.S. President George W. Bush ordered U.S. Board on Geographic Names to reinstate the classification of the Dokdo islets as a South Korean territory, Alexander Vershbow, U.S. ambassador to Seoul, met with South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan yesterday to discuss issues related to Bush’s upcoming visit to Seoul next week. [NEWSIS]
United States President George W. Bush yesterday ordered the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to relabel Dokdo as South Korean territory.

The move comes less than a week after the board began categorizing the islets, occupied by South Korea since 1945 and claimed by Japan, as an area of “undesignated sovereignty.”

The quick reversal, hardly anticipated by any government official or expert here, is expected to brighten the political mood between the two countries ahead of the upcoming Korea-U.S. presidential summit on Aug. 6.

“I asked Condi [State Secretary Condoleeza] Rice to review it, and the database will be restored where it was seven days ago,” Bush said in a joint interview on July 29 in the White House with reporters from South Korea, China and Thailand.

Bush was referring to the board’s online GEOnet Names Server, which a week ago relabeled Dokdo with undesignated sovereignty under the name of Liancourt Rocks, a more neutral name used to refer to the islets that are called Takeshima in Japan.

Last week’s change by the federal agency, which sets geographic name standards for all U.S. government bodies, fanned fears in Seoul that it is losing ground in the international debate with Japan over Dokdo.

The decades-long tension over Dokdo erupted again last month when Tokyo asserted its territorial dispute in new social studies teaching guidelines for middle school teachers.

“President Bush himself made the decision and ordered that the decision be implemented immediately,” said Lee Tae-shik, South Korea’s ambassador to the United States. He said Bush’s decision was conveyed to him by Deputy National Security Adviser James F. Jeffrey yesterday.

Dennis Wilder, senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, also said Washington “decided ... that the change in designation was not warranted at this time,” stressing the database is currently being restored to where it was seven days ago.

“We regret that this change in designation was perceived by South Koreans as some sort of change in our policy,” said Wilder in the press briefing yesterday. But he also stressed the recent reversal does not indicate the U.S. is siding with South Korea in the territorial battle.

“Let me be very clear that our policy on this territorial dispute has been firm and consistent since 1952, and that is, we do not take a position on this territorial dispute.”

The news from Washington was a big relief to Seoul. President Lee Myung-bak has faced mounting criticism that his diplomatic efforts to enhance ties with Japan and the U.S. had flopped badly. Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan met with U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow yesterday to express gratitude for the quick action by the U.S. government. Blue House spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said the latest reversal was a “result of the restored alliance and trust between South Korea and the U.S.”

“The unusually quick action means President Bush fully understands the feelings of South Koreans and is also a reflection of the deep trust and friendship between the two countries’ leaders,” Lee said.

A Foreign Ministry official who declined to be named also said few had believed that the U.S. would reverse its position so quickly.

“I feel like we have just escaped from hell,” said the official.

Japanese government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura downplayed the U.S. decision, saying it does not indicate a change in Washington’s position on the dispute.

“The Japanese government does not believe that the change in this statement on the Web site reflects a change in the position taken by the United States,” Machimura said at a news conference yesterday.


By Jung Ha-won Staff Reporter [hawon@joongang.co.kr]



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