[Outlook]Dokdo diplomacy

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[Outlook]Dokdo diplomacy

It must have been difficult to change the decision by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a group of experts, even for the president. However, President George W. Bush accomplished what seemed impossible before his planned visit to Korea. The classification of the Dokdo islets has been changed back to what it was before July 22. South Korea’s public opinion and the Foreign Ministry’s desperate efforts pushed President Bush into action. In doing so, Bush paid back a part of the debt incurred 103 years ago by the 26th U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt.

In July 1905, William Taft, the secretary of war under President Roosevelt, went to Tokyo under secret orders from the president and signed a secret pact, the Katsura-Taft Agreement, with Prime Minister Taro Katsura. In the agreement, Japan recognized the United States’ rule in the Philippines and the United States recognized Japan’s control over Joseon.

Japan soon earned similar recognition from the United Kingdom. Backed by the acknowledgement of major foreign powers, Japan put pressure on King Gojong in November of the same year, getting the Eulsa Treaty signed and depriving Joseon of its right to diplomacy. Japan then incorporated the Dokdo islets into Shimane Prefecture, one of several measures made to limit Joseon’s sphere of influence.

Logically speaking, the Katsura-Taft pact may not have a causal relation to Japan’s seizure of Dokdo, but politically, the seeds of today’s Dokdo issue were sown during that U.S.-Japan collusion. Even though it was probably because of the desperate circumstance in which President Bush is to visit Korea right after the U.S. beef import dispute, it was a brave political decision for him to overturn the experts’ decision. The move is certainly worthy of Koreans’ applause.

However, considering the essence of the Dokdo issue, we can’t remain relieved over this small achievement which took place thanks to President Bush’s determination. Restoring the original classification of the Dokdo islets just meant overturning the decision made by the BGN on July 22, which means that we simply get back what we had lost for a while. The essence of the issue is that the BGN decided in 1977 to call the Dokdo islets the Liancourt Rocks.

The key is to change this decision. The difference between the ways Korea and Japan handle the Dokdo issue is like the difference between trees and rhizomes. Above the ground, trees keep a distance from other trees and thus share a certain amount of information in a certain way. Underground, the tree’s rhizomes are entangled with those of other trees, and are thus involved in complicated dialogue. Korea’s diplomacy on the Dokdo issue should follow the rhizome model.

The most convincing historical document to prove Dokdo is Korean territory is the Katsura-Taft Agreement and old maps that state the islets belong to Korea. The government must mobilize experts, help them collect and sort out the entire pact and all old maps that state Dokdo is Korean territory and distribute the data to all Koreans.

The experts should also prepare data to refute historical documents and maps that Japan presents to support its claim. Then, not only diplomats but also all Koreans will be able to explain like experts why Dokdo is Korean territory if the islets come up as a topic when talking with non-Koreans.

Quiet diplomacy over Dokdo must play out like this. If the Foreign Ministry and embassies and legations abroad are inactive about the issue as they have been, the classification of the Dokdo islets could be changed again at any moment.

South and North Korea spoke diplomatically over the agreement produced during the inter-Korean summit in October 2007, leaving an important lesson. In principle, it isn’t wise to bring the case of a South Korean tourist having been shot in Mount Kumgang to the Asean Regional Forum. The incident wasn’t so serious as to threaten the security of the Asean+3, namely South Korea, China and Japan.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry also made another mistake. The foreign minister of Singapore, the host country of the meeting, recently visited North Korea and was treated as a state guest. As North Korean Foreign Minister Park Ui-chun’s attendance at the ARF was also his official visit to Singapore, he met with his Singaporean counterpart for dinner.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry underestimated the possible effects of these facts on the dispute over the 2007 agreement. The South Korean government failed in its attempts to weaken the meaning of the agreement. It was a self-contradiction from the beginning to oppose the agreement that a South Korean president signed with the top leader of North Korea.

South Korea instead succeeded in weakening the meaning of the 2007 agreement by pressuring representatives of developing countries at the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement held in Teheran. But this achievement doesn’t leave much to be happy about.

A big part of the responsibility for winding the clock of the Korean Peninsula back to the Cold War era lies with South Korea. If confrontation between South and North Korea continues until the United Nations General Assembly in autumn, we will have wasted national energy on an unsubstantial issue.

President Lee Myung-bak must complement the suggestion that he made during his speech at the National Assembly’s opening. When he delivers a speech on Aug. 15, Korean Independence Day, he must present a tangible plan to turn confrontation into dialogue. The Lee administration must learn from its experiences with the Dokdo issue and in Singapore and do better diplomacy.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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