[Outlook]Ambassadorial misstep

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[Outlook]Ambassadorial misstep

Dokdo is rich in political symbolism for Koreans. Therefore, there is a high possibility that populist sentiment may emerge concerning any territorial row involving it. The current controversy surrounding the islets is no exception.

Irresponsible, unfeasible and populist remarks such as abolishing Korea-Japan fishing agreements, dispatching Marines, waging a war against Japan and claiming ownership of Tsushima continue to pour out at the public.

If a few politicians persist in their views, the scope of options open to government officials will naturally dwindle away. Prime Minister Han Seung-soo’s much-publicized visit to Dokdo can be understood in this context. It amounts to nothing more than a stopgap measure.

Remarks by the Korean ambassador to Japan were pitiful. He hinted that his return to Tokyo might be postponed, saying there is a “shameful history” of the Korean government returning recalled ambassadors to their post in Japan on the sly after the Japanese government refused to address the issue that prompted the recall in the first place.

This makes Korea look weak after taking a hard stance. “That practice will not be repeated,” the ambassador said.

However, this is nonsense. Recalling an ambassador is a dishonorable measure for him because it shows his disqualification as an ambassador. Moreover, leaving his post empty is an unjustifiable act for a diplomat. It usually aggravates bilateral misunderstandings.

Of course, we more or less understand the difficulties the prime minister and the ambassador are facing. However, we need to give a cool-headed response.

A few Japanese politicians repeat populist remarks every year surrounding Dokdo, and the Japanese government has no choice but to address the issue.

Against this backdrop, is there any need to be angry? Why don’t we give up this needless excitement and try to cope with appropriate responses?

More importantly, what we should be extremely cautious about is an emotional and inflammatory response.

If remarks arouse public controversy, the global community will likely regard Dokdo as an area in dispute. This is the situation that Japanese conservatives are eager to realize.

We seem to overlook the fact that Dokdo is under the actual and effective control of Korea. Japan quietly ignores China’s claim that the Senkaku Islands are part of China’s territory and should be returned to China, because the islands are physically under Japan’s control.

The same may be said of the Kuril Islands.

Japan is ceaselessly trying to get the Russian government to admit that the islands should be returned to Japan, but Russia offers no response because it occupies them. Such territorial disputes are futile arguments that can not be understood from the global perspective.

However, the concerned governments cannot avoid such issues because they must consider domestic public opinion.

Even though the name Dokdo may be changed to Liancourt Rocks, it does not mean Korea is deprived of its sovereignty over the islets.

Furthermore, we can expect no benefit whatsoever by bringing the issue to the International Court of Justice. Even if Japan takes the issue to the court, Japan can get nothing if the Korean government shuns its action. In particular, a non-binding international trial is feasible only when both parties suffer unfairness. However, as Dokdo is physically under Korea’s control, there is no reason at all for Korea to take the issue to the court.

If President Lee Myung-bak emotionally responds to the issue, he might pay a heavy price. Former President Kim Young-sam addressed the Dokdo issue in 1995, saying, “Japan has no manners. I will punish it.” The public shouted for joy.

Three years later, when Korea fell into financial trouble, Japan offered little help. There were some who believed that if Japan had agreed to help Korea with its relatively large amount of yen loans, Korea would not have suffered as much financial woes.

Kim’s remarks backfired by making Japan angry, and the Korean public suffered greatly.

The start of the Dokdo dispute was simple. Tokyo has included its claim to Dokdo in educational guidelines for middle school teachers.

The Web site of Japan’s foreign ministry has already described Dokdo as a part of Japan.

Following this, is there any need to be infuriated over Japan’s textbook guidelines?

The foremost task facing us is to concentrate our diplomatic energies on correcting Japan’s foreign ministry Web site. In this vein, there is a suspicion that the territorial row over Dokdo might be being used as a tactic to put Korean public opinion to sleep after candlelight vigils threw the nation into political turmoil.

It is regretful that Ambassador Kwon’s inappropriate remarks drive us to feel suspicious of his real intention.


The writer is a professor of journalism at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Jeong-tak
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