Korea Must Be Assertive, Tough on Dokdo Sovereignty
This is the first in a series of articles highlighting Dokdo’s history, environment, old maps and folklore, possibility of the international court decision on the East Sea islets and law of the sea. The series is the joint project of The Korea Times and the Northeast Asian History Foundation. ― ED.
By Michael Ha
Japan's announcement this month that it will add a sovereignty claim over Dokdo in middle school manuals is renewing diplomatic tension over this hot-button issue.
A leading expert on the history of these islets observed that Japan's announcement is part of Tokyo's ``unrelenting, persistent, strategic planning" to undermine Korea's rightful sovereignty over these East Sea islets.
In an interview with The Korea Times, Professor Shin Yong-ha said the Korean government must be assertive and implement long-term, multi-pronged countermeasures to refute Japan's claim.
Professor Shin is currently chairman of the Dokdo Institute, an academic organization committed to the cause of keeping Dokdo a Korean territory. He is an honorary professor at Seoul National University and a professor emeritus at Ewha Womans University. His nickname, bestowed by the local media, is ``the keeper of Dokdo."
Professor Shin shared his observations over the issue and what he thinks are appropriate diplomatic remedies for President Lee Myung-bak. First, the professor is not a big fan of how Korea's successive administrations have handled this issue.
``Korean governments continue to make similar diplomatic snafus in dealing with this issue. This has allowed Tokyo to advance its outrageous territorial claim," the professor said.
``President Lee and his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun have different ideologies. But they both began their respective administrations with a soft-gloves approach toward Japan. It backfired in both cases.
``Japanese officials are very determined and they have a long-term goal of claiming these islets as Japan's. Depending on how the Korean government responds, sometimes the Japanese government would take one step back or take a sidestep but then take two steps forward when opportunities arise, with a final goal of eventually claiming Dokdo as Japan's."
Shin argued that President Lee and his fledgling administration initially mishandled the situation with Japan and that mishandling resulted in Japan's recent move, ``two-steps forward," regarding Dokdo.
He said Lee was engaged in ``naive diplomacy" with the Japanese government. Lee tried to thaw the icy relationship between South Korea and Japan, to bring warmth to the bilateral chill. But it backfired, the professor said.
``After his inauguration in February, President Lee judged that under the previous Roh administration, perhaps too much tension was built up between the two nations. Lee wanted to redirect the Korea-Japan diplomacy toward friendlier, `future-oriented' relations."
The professor explained that to that end, ``Lee had decided early on in his presidency that he would not discuss with Japan the troublesome and the highly sensitive issue of Dokdo and Japan's continued distortion of Korean history in its schoolbooks.
``In April, Korea's ambassador to Japan even said, `On these issues of Dokdo and Japan textbooks, let's put them away in a pocket and not bring them up."
He said President Lee believed that Japan would be appreciative of this move from a new South Korean President, having just concluded a tense relationship with then President Roh.
``Lee figured that the Japanese government would respond in kind to his goodwill gesture. The President predicted that in return, Japan would back away from claiming Dokdo was Japanese territory and that it would no longer add distorted accounts of Korean history in textbooks," he said. ``That's pretty naive thinking on the President's part, I think."
But, the professor noted, regarding this diplomatic initiative, ``Japan saw President Lee's goodwill and interpreted it as a weakness. The Japanese government saw it as a chance to finally embark on its `surprise attack' and act on an initiative that it's been waiting to undertake.
``Japan started an offensive, what I would describe as a diplomatic attack. And so Dokdo again became a fiery issue."
Shin advised that the territorial issue ``deals directly with a nation's sovereignty and survival. Korean government officials should never comment or suggest that they would not deal with it or `put it away in a pocket.' New administrations should strongly assert right off the bat that they would defend the nation's territories no matter what. That's how a strong nation conducts its foreign affairs."
He warned that Tokyo's announcement represents a ``major move forward" in Japan's long-term goal of taking over the East Sea islets.
``The Japanese government will now add its territorial claim in teachers' manuals for all middle schools in Japan. Japan says, quite inaccurately, that Dokdo is its indigenous territory and that Korea is unlawfully occupying the islets. Beginning next year, all Japanese children will be taught this historically inaccurate claim." The tension is again building up between Korea and Japan, he said.
``The latest incident involving Japan's claim over Dokdo boils down to this: Japan took advantage of President Lee's goodwill diplomatic initiative. Instead of returning Lee's friendly diplomacy in kind, Japan took on a diplomatic attack. In my judgment, the blame lies squarely with the Japanese government."
Shin suggested that going forward, ``there are several things that the Lee administration must do to keep Dokdo. The government will need to put in a concerted effort to keep sovereignty over Dokdo islets."
``Looking at the situation as it stands now, Korea currently occupies the islets. Under international law, Dokdo islets continue to be recognized as South Korean territory. So the Korean government should put more resources into raising Dokdo's international profile as lawfully belonging to Korea.
``The Japanese government must also recognize that the time has passed for imperialistic ambitions. And it should unequivocally acknowledge that Dokdo belong to Korea and move toward improving the Korea-Japan bilateral relationship. They are sorely mistaken if they think Japan can somehow claim Dokdo as their territory using these types of tactics."
Additionally, the professor urged the Lee administration to renegotiate the current South Korea-Japan fisheries agreement signed in 1999. He argued that the current agreement has greatly boosted Japan's belief that it may indeed be possible to claim sovereignty over Dokdo islets.
``I think Japan became confident, following the signing of that agreement, that it could steal Dokdo away from Korea," the professor argued.
In that 1999 fisheries agreement, Ulleung-do, an island closer to mainland Korea, was used as a reference point in figuring out exclusionary fishing areas for each side, officially called ``Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)."
``Before the signing of this 1999 Exclusive Economic Zone, I think the Dokdo sovereignty issue was mainly used as a diplomatic tool to put political pressure on Korea. But since 1999, the Japanese government began forming a long-term policy to steal Dokdo," he said.
From that point on, Japan intensified its effort in the international community to claim legal sovereignty over the islands and stepped up its campaign to adopt the Japanese name Takeshima around the world, he said.
``With these new middle school manuals, Japanese children will now grow up believing that Japan rightfully owns these Korean islets. This month's announcement is part of Japan's long-term view that claiming Dokdo would be completed during Japan's next generation, when current children become adults."
Shin argued that former President Kim Young-sam also made a diplomatic blunder. While Kim stopped short of officially signing an agreement on the EEZ using Ulleung-do as a reference point, he nonetheless made a comment to that effect.
In contrast to Japan's effort, Korea, for the most part, has engaged in ``diplomacy of silence," the professor argued. During the early part of Roh's administration, then President Roh also tried to form closer ties with Tokyo and stayed away from the Dokdo issue.
Shin recalled, ``During an early part of his administration, in January 2004, President Roh commented on the Dokdo issue this way. `If I am married to a woman, I don't need to keep saying to others that this woman is my wife. My wife would still be my wife even if I don't keep repeating the fact to others.' One year after that comment, a textbook in Japan appeared that claimed sovereignty over Dokdo. And that was when Roh began to take a tougher approach."
The professor said that one countermeasure that President Lee should take is to reexamine the 1999 fisheries agreement and pull away from the pact.
``We should take a closer look at how the fishing agreement was negotiated and signed. The National Assembly should hold hearings and conduct an official investigation into this matter. We should find out who were responsible for the negotiation and the signing. We should hold them accountable," Shin said.
He also warned that Japan has been actively engaging in lobbying influential Koreans across various fields on the Dokdo issue. He said that quite a few Koreans, including some in academia, have been consciously or unconsciously influenced and even persuaded by the Japanese lobbying.
For example, Shin said, ``The Korean public are now rightfully angry. They are outraged over Japan's latest move. But in response, all Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda had to say was that Korea needs to remain calm on the issue.
``And the Japanese lobbyists campaigning to claim Dokdo are saying the same thing. And they are indeed influencing some Korean opinion makers."
Shin also urged President Lee to boost Korea's sovereignty over the islets by introducing more civilian residents there. ``Right now, as far as civilians are concerned, there is only one couple living there. The government must help more people from Ulleung-do move to Dokdo. The international community does not regard military personnel or police as part of practical occupation.
``The government should allow more Korean civilians, at least five more households, to live on Dokdo on a permanent and peaceful basis," he said. ``The government should take this step today."