Korea needs low-key, long-term approach to Dokdo/Takeshima controversy, says Straub

Korea needs low-key, long-term approach to Dokdo/Takeshima controversy, says Straub

Korean Studies Program associate director David Straub argued in The Nelson Report, a top Washington, D.C. policy newsletter, that Korea needs to take a strategic approach toward the controversy with Japan over the Dokdo Islets ("Takeshima" in Japanese). Widely reported in Korea, Straub's message urged Korea to base its policy on the fact that it has effective control of the islets.

After the events of the past few days, I felt a need to update and expand on my note to you of last week about Dokdo.

First, as a preface for all that is to follow, I fully understand why Koreans feel very strongly about the Dokdo issue and, frankly, I personally sympathize with the ROK claim to the islets.

My basic understanding of the issue is as follows:

(1) The ROK has actual possession of the islets. Japan cannot take the matter to the international court unless the ROK agrees, and the ROK won't. Japan will not attempt to use force to take the islets. As far as I know, not a single country in the world wishes to get involved in the controversy between the ROK and Japan over Dokdo, and thus none will support Japan. In other words, there is no prospect that possession of the islets will ever change from the ROK to Japan (in fact, former Prime Minister Abe made a statement acknowledging this situation a few years ago).

(2) Because of (1) above, however, probably no country, much less the international community as a whole, is likely for the foreseeable future to formally support ROK sovereignty (as opposed to not challenging its actual possession) over Dokdo.

(3) Logically, therefore, the ROK's goals should be to (a) maintain actual physical possession of Dokdo, which, as explained above, is not a problem, (b) in the mid-term, persuade others in the international community that Korea's claim outweighs Japan's, and (c) thereby lay the basis, in the long run, for Japan's eventual dropping its claim and/or the international community actively supporting the ROK's claim.

(4) Given all of the above, tactically the ROK should take a confident, low-key, long-term, strategic approach toward Dokdo.

(a) Overreacting to offending Japanese steps or actions can play into the hands of the Japanese right-wing, both domestically in Japan where those Japanese not particularly interested in Dokdo may be offended and energized by Korean criticism of all "Japanese" and "Japan," and in the international community, where strong Korean reactions are widely reported and thus unintentionally result in increased publicity for the Japanese claim.

(b) Similarly, the ROK should take care not to "demand" that foreign countries support its position on Dokdo-for the time being that will not work and it risks offending those countries and thus hurting Korean interests overall-but confidently, diplomatically publicize its position based on the very best objective research on the issue.

(5) Regarding the recent controversy concerning the U.S., I agree fully that it was wise of President Bush to reverse the recent step by the Board on Geographic Names; the timing of the BGN step last week was extremely unfortunate. But for the ROK to develop a good strategy and good tactics on Dokdo for dealing with all countries, including the U.S., it is critically important for the ROK to correctly and fully analyze both the actions and the intentions of foreign countries.

As far as I can reconstruct what happened-and I caution that, as a former U.S. official, I have no access to confidential information and I am not a representative of the U.S. government-the BGN made a policy decision a year or more ago to note which territories are the subject of disputes around the globe.

Why then, the Korean media asks, did the BGN decide only last week to change the listing for Dokdo but not for other territories in the region, as has been asserted? It appears that bureaucratic procedures and resource limitations resulted in the BGN being very slow to make the actual changes mandated by its policy decision to specify territorial disputes.

What has not been noted in Korea, where the focus naturally is on the Dokdo issue, is that the BGN database has a huge number of errors and inconsistencies in its geographical listings, including territorial disputes, all over the world. Top U.S. government officials have publicly indicated that the BGN move was made by relatively low-level, technical officials who did not seek policy input from senior levels of the U.S. government. Clearly that was very unfortunate, and, for the U.S., the incident highlights the need for the BGN to seek such policy guidance in all cases.

As for the timing of the BGN change, it appears, ironically, that BGN officials were alerted to the controversy by media reporting about the strong Korean reaction to the latest Japanese step. (The Japanese step itself would have received virtually no coverage in the U.S. media if it had not been for the strong Korean reaction.) Acting without policy guidance related directly to Dokdo, the BGN officials apparently thought they were updating the database in response to the general policy change made a year or so earlier. I am aware of no indication that Japanese "lobbying" was behind the BGN move last week.

(6) I can thus easily understand why Koreans, based on their concerns and the information available to them, would construe the BGN action as "siding with" the Japanese position. But, in terms of developing ROK strategy and tactics, it is important, as I noted above, that the Korean government and people fully and accurately understand foreign intentions. In the U.S. case, it is clear that the U.S. government did not and does not intend to change its long-standing policy of not taking a position regarding Dokdo.

What happened in the U.S. was largely the result of pedestrian bureaucratic incompetence and failure to communicate internally within the government-not the result of a basic policy change, much less a conspiracy to support Japan. (I am reminded of the old and very wise saying that one should "never ascribe to conspiracy that which can be explained by stupidity.")

While Koreans of course want all countries, particularly their U.S. ally, to support their position on Dokdo, they should also recognize the fundamentally favorable situation of the ROK in regard to Dokdo: the international community, including the U.S., is not challenging and will not challenge the ROK's actual possession of Dokdo. Thus, as former Prime Minister Abe indicated, Dokdo will remain Korean, and Koreans can say confidently, "Dokdo is our land."