This is the first in a series highlighting President-elect Park Geun-hye's options in dealing with the U.S. — ED
By Jane Han
NEW YORK ― With new leaders in both South Korea and Japan, the chronic territorial dispute over the Dokdo Islets is about to enter a fresh round. Now it's up to the incoming Park Geun-hye administration to quickly and strategically engage the U.S. to get the upper hand on the diplomatically sensitive issue, says a prominent Dokdo expert.
''It's more important than ever to get the U.S. to lean in our direction,'' Choi Jang-geun, a professor of the Department of Japanese Language and Studies at Daegu University, said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Currently a visiting scholar at Murray State University, Choi also heads Daegu University's Dokdo Territorial Studies Research Center.
Experts have warned that Korea will have a tougher fight ahead with Japan in terms of Dokdo and other sensitive historical issues now that ultra right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is back in office.
''It's not going to be easy,'' said Choi, who stressed that President-elect Park's first days in office will set a crucial tone in her stance regarding the two countries' historical problems.
He said Dokdo, specifically, is not a matter of debate or discussion ― it is a territorial sovereignty issue that should be dealt with utmost austerity.
Bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo quickly deteriorated just after outgoing President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented visit last August to the easternmost islets in a bid to reassert the country's ownership.
Japan immediately blasted the move and stepped up its claim over the territory.
''President-elect Park must isolate Dokdo from other diplomatic and economic issues with Japan. That is the first step the new government must take and then it's engaging the United States,'' says Choi.
''You're mistaken if you think Dokdo is still a matter between Korea and Japan. It has now become an international issue, just as Japan wanted it to be,'' he said.
Tokyo has made continuous efforts to internationalize the Dokdo dispute in order to secure a more advantageous position. It has been preparing to refer the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on its own, but recent reports have indicated that the new Abe administration wishes to hold off on the process in a bid to mend ties with Seoul Korea.
Despite latest developments, Choi says Japan will continuously and more aggressively lobby the U.S.
''Right now, the U.S. is keeping a neutral stance, but that can easily change depending on the political fluctuations in international society,'' he said, stressing that there is always an underlying probability that Washington will side with Tokyo.
Here's his reason why.
''Korea and the U.S. have a different perception of territory. Unlike Korea, the U.S. does not have a perception of inherent territory,'' explained Choi. ''As we all know, today's U.S. was once a land that was owned and occupied by Native Americans. The land was taken through a process of imperialist territorial invasion.''
He claimed that such difference in perception can lead to fundamental differences in viewing the issue of Dokdo.
''The incoming Korean government must make an incredible diplomatic effort to plant a perception in Washington that Dokdo is Korean territory,'' said Choi, ''and what's more important is that no matter how international politics fluctuates, Korea must build strong enough ties with the U.S. so that its support for Korea does not falter.''
Some observers say Korea should go it alone in dealing with Japan regarding Dokdo, but Choi stresses that such strategy wouldn't be very effective.
''It's too late to resolve the issue one on one. Whether people like it or not, the U.S. is the world's most influential country and we need its backing to win this long, grueling fight,'' he said.