Stop ‘Dokdo populism’

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Stop ‘Dokdo populism’

Nine lawmakers are scheduled to visit Dokdo today in a bid to reconfirm our territorial rights to the islets in the East Sea on the occasion of our August 15 Liberation Day. Their trip could be meaningful given the hardline Shinzo Abe administration’s release earlier this year of its defense white paper, which declared Dokdo a Japanese territory.

But we can hardly dispel doubts that the lawmakers’ visit is aimed at garnering political support from local voters. The legislators went ahead with the trip despite the strong possibility of Tokyo filing a complaint against the move.

Consensus among our diplomatic circles is that the government should engage in so-called “quiet diplomacy.” In contrast to the sex slave issue — one pertaining to the realm of universal human rights — the Dokdo dispute mostly involves a conflict over territorial rights. The more international spotlight the issue receives, the more wrong signals Korea could give the international community that it is really about a territorial dispute. We don’t have to provoke Japan unnecessarily so long as Dokdo is under our effective control.

Nevertheless, a number of our politicians have contributed to the deterioration of our relations with Japan through their populist visits to Dokdo. For instance, former President Lee Myung-bak’s abrupt visit to the islets in 2012 helped the blossoming Seoul-Tokyo relations — thanks to the popularity of Hallyu in Japan — suddenly freeze. Needless to say, Dokdo is our land. But in diplomacy, you have counterparts. Many of our diplomats say that President Lee’s Dokdo visit marked the worst moment in the history of our diplomatic relations with Japan.

That does not apply to incumbent governments only.

The surprise Dokdo visit on July 25 by Moon Jae-in, former leader of the opposition and presidential candidate in the last election, was also deemed to be politically motivated. In fact, it was the current opposition party that denounced Lee’s visit to Dokdo four years ago. At the time, Lee Hae-chan, head of the opposition, harshly criticized President Lee for yielding to temptations to take political advantage of a diplomatic issue.

The lawmakers in question ask, “What’s wrong with our visit to cheer up security guards there?” Their statement is correct. But at a time when frozen Seoul-Tokyo ties begin to show signs of improvement after a foundation has been set up to heal the deep wounds of former comfort women, they should avoid politically-motivated Dokdo populism.

JoongAng Ilbo, August 15, Page 30
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