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Tuesday, March 5, 2011     GET REAL

Japan riles N. and S. Korea — both active
in disaster relief — with textbook timing

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL — North and South Korea share common cause on one topic of historic nationalist significance on which neither is likely to compromise — the foreign power most responsible for historically exploiting and subjugating the Korean people. The dreaded common enemy remains Japan, whose claim to a rocky outcropping midway between South Korea and Japan periodically evokes outrage from this side of the waters, known here as the East Sea and everywhere else as the Sea of Japan.


The fact that a South Korean Coast Guard garrison is stationed on the larger of the Dokdo islets was not mentioned in a North Korean diatribe last weekend scolding Japan for including them in its national territory in a diplomatic “blue paper” as well as newlyauthorized textbooks. The North Korean Web site called them “an invariable territory indigenous to the Korean people yesterday, today and even in the future” while noting outrage in the South over Japan’s claim.

That choice of wording bore a clear similarity to South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s own rejoinder to the Japanese claim to Dokdo, which he called “our territory under any circumstances” and pledged to reinforce them by strengthening the garrison already there.

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Just whom the garrison has to guard against was not mentioned since the Japanese have shown no sign of attempting to recover the islets by force and have never ventured nearby with anything other than fishing boats and, a possible clue to the natural gas and other valuable stuff below, a survey vessel.

For Lee, the point was to show he’s as determined to defend Korea against the Japanese as he is against the North Koreans, whose challenge to South Korea over waters in the West or Yellow Sea remains real more than a year after the attack on the navy vessel the Cheonan and the subsequent shelling of nearby Yeonpyeong Island.

If nothing else, the ruckus over Dokdo served as a reminder of the latent hostility between Japan and Korea at a most unlikely time. The question was why the ponderous Japanese bureaucracy had to repeat its hoary claim to “Dokdo“, meaning “solitary island” in Korean, “Takeshima” or “bamboo island” in Japanese, while South Koreans have been collecting donations and sending rescue teams in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that inundated the northeast coast of the main Japanese island on March 11.

The suffering of Koreans at the hands of the Japanese is all the more palpable while sensors report traces of radiation throughout the South and Koreans stay away from Japanese seafood. If Koreans do not accuse the Japanese of some dastardly anti-Korean nuclear plot, at least they’re finely attuned to the dangers posed by the country that marauded the Korean peninsula periodically for centuries and occupied Korea as a colony for 35 years until the end of World War II.

Few Koreans are inclined to distinguish between products from waters off the Japanese west coast, far from the area northeast of Tokyo where the Fukushima power plant has been polluting the seas. As long as the plant goes on emitting noxious fumes into the air and water, people are in no mood for taking chances.

At this sensitive time, what could have been more inopportune than for Japan’s education ministry to authorize 12 middle school textbooks that clearly state that the islets belong to Japan? The immediate response was quite predictable. Protesters demonstrated outside the Japanese embassy, and Japan’s ambassador was summoned to the foreign minister for a tongue-lashing that’s all in the ritual of anguish whenever Japan manages to offend the Koreans.

Then, as if to show how little the Japanese really care about the caterwauling Koreans, the Japanese cabinet almost immediately followed up with a “diplomatic blue paper” that again made the claim, and again Koreans cried out in useless rage.

But couldn’t the Japanese have waited a little? Couldn’t they at least have held off on any mention of the islets until the Fukushima business was well under control and Korean-Japanese relations on an upward trajectory thanks to Korea’s willingness to help in a time of human duress?

Maybe, but aside from general insensitivity about the nationalist and ethnic feelings of Koreans, the Japanese have one or two other reasons for not wanting to relinquish their claim to Dokdo/Takeshima so easily. These have to do with two other sets of disputed islands.

First, there are the Northern Territories, or the Kuril Islands off the northern edge of Hokkaido that the Soviet Union took over in the final week or so of World War II and has not the slightest intention of negotiating about. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev rubbed salt into the long festering Japanese wound on that topic when he visited Kuunashiri Island in November, inspiring Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan to accuse him of committing an “unforgivable outrage.”

No doubt the Japanese held sway over the islands after trouncing the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, but Russian and Japanese forces have intermittently been challenging one another for control over the islands at the tip of the Kuril chain for centuries.

The second set of islands in dispute are the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, an uninhabited cluster that was once part of the Ryukyu kingdom, taken over by Japan in the 19th century, conquered by the Americans in the battle on Okinawa in June 1945 and “reverted” to Japan in 1972. The position of the government of mainland China in Beijing and that of the “nationalist” Chinese government on Taiwan is analogous to that of North and South Korea on Dokdo. They both view the Senkakus as part of China — more properly an extension of Taiwan administrative territory — regardless of China’s claim to Taiwan as an offshore province.

In the case of the Senkakus, though, the Japanese are reluctant to upset either Taiwan or Beijing by posting a garrison on the islands. Rather, they prefer to let the dispute go on with no chance of resolution, an irritant in the overall scheme of Japanese relations with both Taiwan and Beijing.

The South Koreans, unlike the Japanese, are far more aggressive about their tightening grip on Dokdo. Boats go back and forth between Dokdo and the South Korean coast, carrying food, mail and gifts for the garrison and for an aging couple that lives there year-around just to show Dokdo is not “uninhabited.” There’s a tiny post office on the larger of the two main islets, and there are plans to bring tourists to the island by helicopter rather than by boat, a journey of several hours that often ends in frustration when the boat is unable to dock due to heavy seas.

As if all that weren’t enough, the government has a plan to turn the islets into something more than a rocky outcrop. The Korea Forest Service has announced plans to plant trees on the islets to protect against soil erosion — a problem that no one had previously noticed.

An official, as quoted by Yonhap, the Korean news agency, was frank about the reason for the project. “It will not only help protect the forest ecosystem on Dokdo,” he said, but would “also reinforce practical control”. As if that coast guard garrison, plus the one-person staff of the post office, plus the civilian population of one man and one women, had not already made the point.

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