Victory in Virginia

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Victory in Virginia

The Virginia House of Delegates approved a bill that would require textbooks in the state’s schools to use the appellations Sea of Japan and East Sea for the body of water between Korea and Japan. After Governor Terry McAuliffe signs it, the change will be effective from 2015 for all school textbooks approved by Virginia’s Board of Education. The bill had already been approved by the Senate of Virginia with bipartisan support and then the lower house approved it. The governor has already pledged to endorse it.

The legislation - the first of its kind in a U.S. state - is a milestone for Korea’s dispute with Japan over the naming of the sea. The state of Virginia has produced eight American presidents and remains politically influential. The U.S. federal government only recognizes the name Sea of Japan.

The repercussions of the Virginia decision may not be small. As publishers don’t usually produce books or maps for a single state, the map that appears in school textbooks in Virginia will likely be used in six other states. The new labeling requirement by Virginia, therefore, will change maps in other parts of America. Currently, about 28 percent of world maps refer to the sea as both the East Sea and the Sea of Japan.

The legislation was a victory for a persistent campaign by Korean-Americans in the state. Their campaign was opposed to by lobbying efforts by Japanese diplomats and businesses in America. Peter Y. Kim, a Virginia resident and head of the Voice of Korean Americans, a nonprofit organization that has campaigned for the change of labels of the East Sea, said that the law - the first to have passed a state’s legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support on behalf of the local Korean community - “marks a new page in the 111-year history of Korean immigrants to the United States.”

The triumph underscores the private diplomatic role that overseas Korean communities can play in raising global awareness of other historical issues like the women forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II, bringing the two traditional allies closer.

The law was passed despite heavy and expensive lobbying by Japan. The Japanese Embassy hired a team of lobbyists from McGuireWoods, a leading lobbying firm in Richmond, Virginia, to block the bill and to warn that the law could impair more than $1 billion in Japanese investment in the state over the past five years. Criticism against the ultra-conservative government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which has been exceptionally unapologetic about Japan’s past military aggression, could have played a part.

The labeling of the East Sea is one of the historical issues Korea must settle with Japan. The East Sea first became the Sea of Japan on international maps in colonial days after it was first mentioned in a book published by the International Hydrographic Organization in 1929. The joint naming of the sea the two countries share could be symbolic in reshaping our bilateral relationship.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 8, Page 30

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