Thursday, March 17, 2005

Woe is Tokto

Time to get this sleepy blog off the ground, and what better way than to dip my pen in the waters swirling off the East Sea (aka Sea of Japan). Of course, unless you have been living in a cave eating garlic, you know that I'm referring to the Tokto-Takeshima issue. [For googling purposes, I'm also including the spellings Tokdo, Dokdo, Tok-to, Tok-do, Dok-do, Tok Island, Dok Island, and Liancourt Rocks dispute.]

As many others have pointed out, things are
getting out of hand. Expatriate blogdom — even those that consider Korea to be the rightful owners of Tokto — has generally been critical of the Korean side's (over-)reaction to the local Shimane prefectural legislature's action of declaring "Takeshima Day," which piggybacked Japanese ambassador to Korea Toshiyuki Takano's comments that Takeshima is "historically and legally part of Japanese territory."

The reaction from this side of the Korea-Japan saltwater lake has been shrill. Koreans
cutting off appendages, Koreans being arrested in Shimane to prevent them from cutting off appendages, Korea's top diplomat making decidedly undiplomatic statements, and people just in general getting very, very angry.

But I for one would like to put a few things in perspective. I do want to say two things up front: First, I do believe those islands rightfully belong to Korea, for a number of reasons too numerous to mention here; and second, I do think that Korea — both the government and the people — are over-reacting to this in an emotional way that, in the long run, may be counter to their interests.

However, I must admit that for the people reacting emotionally, I almost can't blame them. They are fed lies and half-truths by the media here and even if they believe just half of what's splattered on their newspapers or comes through the tube, any reasonable person could easily get upset.

But the whole problem is that the media is trying to manipulate them. The Korea Times headline (in at least one print edition) screamed "Japan's Takeshima Day Sparks Outrage."

Japan's Takeshima Day?! Japan's?! Even if you believe that Tokyo is secretly behind this, it is Shimane's Takeshima Day. It is not a special day anywhere else in that country. A person unfamiliar with this issue who might have happened upon that headline might think "Takeshima Day" were a national day, not a local prefectural one.

There are, of course, other examples, of news stories talking about how Japan's navy could defeat Korea's navy, and Japanese planes are skirting the skies over Tokto. People are on edge, put there by the media, which keeps nudging them further and further.

So, yeah, I blame the media for much of this outrage, but that doesn't mean there would be no outrage even if Korean media were completely truthful and objective. Koreans are facing a formally brutal colonial occupier, about whom they collectively retain bitter feelings (in part because of that colonizer's unwillingness to be honest and forthcoming about the past), who is again voicing a claim to Korean territory.

To those in blogdom who think that Koreans are making a big deal over nothing, I submit that this is indeed a big deal. How many countries would stand idly by and do nothing while another country claims your island and the waters around it where tensions sometimes flare? Korea cannot sit around and do nothing. A strong, stern response is necessary.

Of course, that doesn't mean that destroying Korean-Japanese relations is in order, as Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon seems to
have suggested. Fortunately, Mr. Ban seems to have realized that a bit of moderation is in order and he has cooled down his own rhetoric, at least for now (but only a little). Others are also voicing calls for toning things down. Former Unification Minister Park Jae-kyu has said that the government needs to keep a clearer head.

I think another part of the problem is that so many Koreans are not used to dealing from a position of strength. As those who control Tokto for the past half century, they have the upper hand. Tokyo would risk war and ostracism were it to take up arms against Seoul to wrest those islets from Korean control, something they aren't willing to do, even if they are able (a questionable statement in and of itself).

No, those islands aren't going anywhere anytime soon. There is no national emergency. This is an obscure prefecture making a claim that has no bearing over anything.

Nevertheless — and this is what the English-language K-blogosphere needs to realize — Seoul must react somehow. Doing nothing and saying nothing has a tendency to lend legitimacy to such claims. But that something certainly should be measured and in proportion to the threat laid before it.

At a provincial level, not a national level, all of Ullŭng-gun County (which includes Tokto) should be declared a provincial park (by Kyŏngsang-bukto authorities). Provinces are on par with prefectures. Get it, Mr. Ban?

If you've ever seen pictures of Ullŭng-do Island, you know it's deserving of some sort of park status. In fact, it was designated a natural monument in 1982. In time, if necessary in this diplomatic row, the provincial park can be upgraded to a national park. Indeed, there were plans to do this, and they should be revamped. This is a measured, reasonable, even response. If Tokyo protests, then Seoul responds with the same excuse given by Tokyo about Shimane: it's a local issue we can't do anything about.

The Korean government's decision to
let tourists visit the rocky islets (which have their own beauty irrespective of the political storm surrounding them) is also a step in the right direction, as were plans to set up cell phone service there. In other words, it's time to normalize the islands as a part of Korean territory. Heck, if tours can be run to the DMZ, why not Tokto?

The local provincial or county government may even consider allowing residents to register there and/or actually live there. Perhaps a handful of fishermen who legitimately might benefit from being there instead of Ullŭng-do.

These acts would strengthen Korea's already strong hand and underscore the weakness of Japan's situation: Korea is in a position to administer these islands while Japan is not. Possession, as the saying goes, is nine-tenths of the law.

More to the point, these acts are not shrill. Shrillness never changed anyone's mind. Hacking off a finger won't convince anyone of anything except that you are a nutjob who should be committed. Remember the US citizen who killed himself in protest of Bush's re-election? Probably not until I just now mentioned it. Heck, I can't even find a link.

And that leads me to my next point, again directed at the blogosphere. There are nearly 50,000,000 people in this country, and some of them, inevitably, are going to do things that make you go, "What the fuck...?!" These people are the norm no more than the guy who committed suicide over Bush is the norm in America. Yeah, there were millions of Americans upset by Bush's re-election (including me), but most of us weren't killing ourselves. And in the end, very, very few moved to Canada. Likewise, the other 49,999,997 or so Koreans have the same number of fingers they did a week ago.

To me, killing yourself trumps cutting off your finger, yet Korea is characterized in the blogosphere as full of nutjobs [2007 ed: as "finger-chopping whacky"], while the good 'ole U.S. of A. is portrayed as a mature, normal country. I'm not making an argument that the emotional response in Korea is okay because people get emotional elsewhere, just that if one were to look at Korea as a complex entity the same as one sees his or her home country, the view of Korea becomes very different.

And this brings me back to an earlier point: most of the emotional responders are acting as they do because of media manipulation. VANK tells them of sinister global plans to keep Korea down, and they believe it. The media tells them that Korea gave up fishing rights around Tokto because of the "IMF crisis," and they believe it. With no competing information, what else is there to believe?

In this regard, the Korean government is doing no one any favors by forcing Internet service providers to
block websites that might promote a "pro-Japanese" point of view about Tokto. The move is to prevent their mental health from being harmed. The government doesn't seem to worry about the long-term social health problems associated with keeping people half-informed and in the dark.

I wonder if the Japan Times will be blocked, too? The very Japan Times that
says in their article that the Tokto islets were under Korean sovereignty five years before Shimane claimed them:
The islets were placed under Korean sovereignty in 1900. Shimane incorporated the islands into the prefecture in 1905, after Japan seized them during the Russo-Japanese war.
Oh, it's all just a mess. But it's exactly what the nationalists in Korea want, and what the Japanese rightists were hoping for.
In addition to South Korean protesters, Japanese right-wing extremists circled the area in sound trucks blasting nationalist slogans and songs.
That's right: despite what blogosphere says about the average Japanese possibly knowing little or nothing of this issue, the right wingers are giddy with joy about this. They're orgasmically enthusiastic. They see this as a chance for Japan to assert itself and return to its glory days of empire, something the average Japanese probably sees as a scary thought.

So Ban Ki-moon is playing into the hands of the Japanese right wingers. Meanwhile, the nationalists in Korea are beside themselves with anger, and Roh Moohyun is looking like a great leader. [2007 ed: Roh Moohyun's popularity dipped into the low 20s around the time he did this, despite or even because of his irresponsible behavior and pandering to nationalism.]

Look for this to repeat itself every February and March until eternity is half over. God help us all.



  1. Takeshima Day did get concern over Japanese sanctions against north Korea off of the front pages of newspapers in Japan and south Korea.

  2. Kushibo, you seem to have a good handle on the issue.


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