Posted : 2008-08-28 18:33
Updated : 2008-08-28 18:33

Dokdo and Liancourt Rocks

By Joseph Steinberg

``How much whining does a country have to do to get you guys to put something out there that is antithetical to the ― to your policy?"

That impertinent query was put to U.S. State Department punch bag of the day, Sean McCormack, on July 31 regarding the American policy on the disputed twin volcanic islets between Ulleung Island and the Japanese island of Honshu. Where it really counts, on the nearly identical maps posted with the State Department's ``Background Notes" on Japan and ROK, those islets are labeled, ``Liancourt Rocks" (located in the Sea of Japan). And, on the U.S. Library of Congress' entry on South Korea, ``Liancourt Rocks" in the ``Sea of Japan" is listed as disputed territory.

Additionally, on the GNS Search page of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, accessible in text-and-map based search form from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN)'s website, the standard form is ``Liancourt Rocks."

Twisting the issues even further, ROK President Lee Myung-bak expressed at an Aug. 6 joint press conference with U.S. President George W. Bush his gratitude "... for correcting swiftly the naming issue within the United States." On July 30, Bush ordered the BGN to list Liancourt as Korean territory. Just how confusingly and slowly can one policy be executed?

And, it's abusive. Two presidents have conspired to alter reality by changing names in governmental documents. The British philosopher, Stuart Hampshire, argued that justice requires procedural fairness. The means by which the American and South Korean executives have arrived at a solution to this cartographic dispute is patently unjust.

The course towards a just decision lies where Bush and Lee, as well as Japan, refuse to go. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) declares justice and equity as its motivating principles, rather than nationalism and control. It is no secret that both American and Japanese conservatives generally view international law and organizations, like the U.N., with grudging acceptance, if not open contempt. The symbiotic relationships between the American and Japanese military forces and corporations is no better symbolized than by Tokyo's decision to cooperate in the operationalization of a Northeast Asian missile shield.

Both Japan and ROK advance abstruse, and conflicting historical claims, the act of claiming hides what each most wants to avoid. Both Japanese and South Korean claims still stand because of the U.S.' failure to decide the issue during the negotiation of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952. Furthermore, the last disputant to act militarily was not Japan, but ROK, in 1954 when President Syngman Rhee illegally seized the islets. The islets seem to attract evil.

That evil takes the form of rotten sentimentalism. ``Washington must consider the gravity of this issue, as its move is nothing short of backing the Japanese invasion of the Korean Peninsula." (Dong-A Daily, ``U.S. Must Consider Dokdo Korean Territory, " July 29, 2008) Actually, the United States did support Japan's colonial ambitions. The truth is not a concealed weapon, but people do learn. ``The only way Seoul can inflict losses on Tokyo is to take not only a territorial but also historical approach and show the world Japan's long track record of invading neighbors." (The Korea Times, "Future of Dokdo", July 31, 2008)

Again, no one disputes the historical fact, that a petulant Japan made its former overlords suffer, inflicting collateral damage on a peninsula that could move out of the way, and would resist allowing another such authoritarian outburst from the ROK again. The supreme evil is, that like Washington in 1952, indecision and cowardice are now the norm, only South Koreans back fear with concealed weapons.

Yet, there is a mutually advantageous vision of Japan and the ROK as the France and Germany of the bipolar foundation of the East Asian Treaty Organization, and possibly an East Asian Economic Community. Liancourt Rocks could be the peace offering that cements the foundations of an economic and military juggernaut. On the face of it, Liancourt Rocks is a feeble hurdle to reconciliation. As Michael Breen has argued, the twin peaks are not even islands. (Korea Times, "They're Ain't No 'Do' in Dok", July 24, 2008) Underneath the waves could be sizable deposits of methane clathrate, although exploration, extraction, and refinement are all still uncertain propositions.

Arguably, a rare hydrocarbon product in one's own pond is better than all crude oil sent through tankers and pipelines. Again, in its difficulty and novelty, the fiery ice calls for multilateral cooperation between two of the world's promising scientific powers.

Yoshibumi Wakamiya has advocated that Tokyo's conservatives should just relinquish the islets, and in return ROK could rename them, ``Friendship Island." (Asahi Daily, Who Is Smiling at the Latest Row?, July 30, 2008) Evoking Voltaire's call to defend even his enemy's right to speak, Wakamiya envisions a Japan-ROK alliance against the DPRK. ``I don't want to hear North Korea laugh at us and make fun of freedom of speech and cooperation between democracies."

That day is long off when Japanese and South Koreans can talk to one another, build a more peaceful East Asia, and end a history of incompetence, cowardice and fear.

Joseph J. Steinberg is an ESL instructor at Dong-A University in Busan and is studying for a Master's Degree in international relations. He operates a blog, Left Flank (
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