[Outlook]Cool heads in rocky water

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[Outlook]Cool heads in rocky water

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names has defused a recent controversy over the status of the Dokdo islets. The board had changed Dokdo’s description from a territory belonging to Korea to one of “undesignated sovereignty.” But the board restored its long-standing listing of the islets under Korea at the request of President George W. Bush.

The U.S. president must have been feeling the political pressure; he is scheduled to visit Korea this week. The Lee Myung-bak administration is also relieved. It had to seek a solution to satisfy the public and the international community while dealing with issues on the resumption of U.S. beef imports.

But the Dokdo issue has not been completely solved. The U.S. government has used “Liancourt Rocks” to describe the Dokdo islets since 1977, and it is highly likely that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names will mark Dokdo and other disputed areas in Northeast Asia “undesignated sovereignty” according to new standards.

The decision by the United States does not necessarily entail a victory for Korean diplomacy.

In effect, the United States has shown consideration for Seoul’s position by not raising any objection to Korea’s effective control over the islets thus far.

But the fact that the issue was highlighted in the United States has brought some pressure to bear on Korea.

The board explained that the change to the description of the islets was a technical one, but some observers think that Japan has been lobbying for the islets to be renamed. If this is the case, some commentators believe the United States had political intentions from the start - not technical ones - and so favored a political solution.

However, it is doubtful whether this solution would have won over the international community in the future, and pro-Korea specialists in the United States feel truly frustrated. That’s why the government should not spare any effort to reach a long-term solution for the Dokdo issue.

The controversy over the Dokdo islets is not a new issue, and it did not originate from a poor foreign policy strategy. It has developed as a historical and territorial dispute.

Korea cannot expect sympathy from the international community as it has done over other issues like the comfort women or Japan’s history textbooks.

Dokdo is not an issue that the United States or the international community is particularly interested in, and there is no clear reason why the United States should back Seoul’s position.

In the past, the Dokdo issue was solely a problem between Korea and Japan, but the latest controversy has dragged it into the arena of Korea-U.S. relations. While President Bush’s decision reaffirmed the importance of the Korea-U.S. alliance, the position of the United States has not changed. Both Korea and Japan are important allies of the United States in Northeast Asia, and realistically, Washington has no choice but to take a neutral position.

Japan periodically makes an issue out of the Dokdo islets because of domestic politics. Japan and the United States, as well as the international community, know too well that Japan’s move would not affect Korea’s control over the islets.

An excessive response will only encourage conservative voices in Japan, and Korea could be duped by Japan into making the Dokdo issue an international dispute.

If the Korean government runs a military drill around the Dokdo islets or if outraged members of the public burn Japanese flags and textbooks in front of the Japanese Embassy, Korea’s reputation and standing will suffer.

If Korea wants to win the support of the international community, it should break away from conspiracy theories and adopt a more strategic approach.

It would be a good idea to launch an international project concerning the Dokdo issue using the attention it has garnered.

A team of internationally renowned experts from Korea, Japan and the United States could analyze the facts more objectively and prepare a policy strategy. The Northeast Asian History Foundation or the Korea Foundation would be able to take a leading role.

Historical and territorial issues including the matter of Dokdo are key issues in Northeast Asia and cannot be solved overnight.

It is necessary to refrain from acting emotionally and keep calm. Instead of seeking a political and temporary solution, we should develop a theory to convince the international community that the Dokdo islets belong to Korea and educate specialists to persistently promote the project.

The Lee administration needs to advance foreign policy and security as it promised through this Dokdo project.


*Shin Gi-wook is chair professor of sociology at Stanford University. David Straub is associate director of the Korean Studies Program at Stanford University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Shin Gi-wook, David Straub

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