The other day, I heard a South Korean academic give a talk, where he touched on the most recent flare-up over the small uninhabitable island (including a few non-submerged rocks that break the surface, I understand) is known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokto in South Korea.
For those of you who are not aware of what has been going on, the Japanese decision to include a description of Takeshima as Japanese territory in official instruction material for schoolteachers has caused South Korea to call home its ambassador to Tokyo and cancel a meeting between the respective foreign ministers. The public outcry in South Korea has been substantial, sometimes bordering on the physical, though the disturbance has not been nearly as dramatic as the mass demonstrations in Seoul against the renewal of importation of U.S. beef. This is the first such incident since 2005, when Japan’s Shimane Prefectural Assembly adopted an ordinance—subordinate to but otherwise with the same legal status as national law—designating 2 February as Takeshima Day, setting off a response from the South Korean public and the Roh Moo-hyun administration.*
The academic made two points. First, the Korean public harbors the fear that Japan will use force to seize the island if the opportunity presents itself. This mistrust has its roots in Korean history both modern and ancient, and is shared by intellectuals as well (though he did not harbor such fears himself). Second, Japan should not engage in revisionism. It should not try to change the post-WW II status quo with regard to the Northern Territories, Dokto, and Senkaku (sic**).
My reaction to the oft-heard first point is always one of initial amazement and only partial ultimate comprehension. There is one thing that South Koreans must understand though. The Japanese government is making—had always made—its claims in a peaceful and lawful manner, offering to settle the matter like civilized people at the International Court of Justice. The Japanese government is able to take into consideration the effect on the overall bilateral relationship, to act more reasonably, partly because the Japanese public invests only a small fraction of its emotions in this issue compared to its South Korean public (and partly because of a sense of responsibility towards Japan’s past actions toward Korea). But the disproportionate reaction from South Korea in itself draws Japanese attention to the issue, and the resultant rise in awareness is sure to reflect negatively on South Korea in the minds of the Japanese public. After all, South Korea does have possession, and the instructional material has far harsher words for Russia without any negative reaction whatsoever. Possession under protest may not be nine-tenths of the international law, but it sure helps in the political arena.
As for the second point, revisionism is used to cover historical interpretations that challenge the accepted view of the times. But the Japanese government is not trying to reinterpret history. It has consistently upheld its claims since South Korea drew the Syngman Rhee Line in the Japan Sea in 1951 and forcibly seized Takeshima/Dokto. Even in the adulterated sense of trying to change the status quo, with threat of force if need be—was the professor trying to call the Japanese government revanchist?—it is South Korea that destroyed the status quo, so who exactly is the revisionist then?
Both sides claim Taeshima/Dokto. South Korea has possession, Japan does not. Japan offers to settle the matter in the International Court of Justice, South Korea does not. The governments and the public on both sides of the Japan Sea (South Korea insists on calling it the East Sea, but there is little international support for this change in the—status quo) continue to state their claims. This is the way that it is going to be, forever and ever, and a day.
Can I guarantee that the two nations will not come to blows over this within my lifetime? No, no more than I can guarantee that a wayward asteroid will not strike the Earth and wipe out all humanity within my lifetime. Or that a lone monkey typing away 24-7, 365 1/4 days-a-year for… But you see my point. What I can guarantee, though, is that every time South Korea takes a Japanese reiteration of its territorial claims as a national affront and allows its collective anger to erupt, that infinitesimal chance of such a thing happening grows—albeit imperceptibly.
* The South Korean response appears to have been much stronger then. The U.S. beef incident, as well as to a much, much smaller degree the North Korean shooting of a South Korean tourist, no doubt has sapped much of the negative political energy. But Prime Minister Koizumi, whose trips to Yasukuni had cast a pall on the overall bilateral relationship, is gone.
** Japan, of course, does not intend to change the status quo on the Senkaku Islands, which is already under its possession.
I try to avoid polemics on this blog, though I am often unsuccessful at it. But that particular occasion was unsuited for a proper debate on the matter. (For one thing, the session was devoted mostly to other issues, and the academic’s points came up only in a rather short Q&A.) I’ve decided to put my response here because I think that it is relevant to people who read this blog, some of whom also attended the talk.