Let me say one thing before I begin: this post is not going to be a tired rehashing of the Dokdo issue. The newspaper of record just published an article on Lee Myung-bak’s recent wag-the-dog visit to the islands, while the Dokdo Times, as usual, has summarized the event perfectly:
Japanese-born President Lee Myung-bak made the first ever visit by a South Korean leader to the Korean Dokdo Islands today, in an unprecedented trip that unmistakably proves Seoul’s sovereignty over the territory.
The move – made just hours before Korea faces its mortal enemy in an Olympic football match – has angered Japan, a country with a long history of being angry at something. “If the visit is made, it would go against our country’s position” said Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba reacting to the rumored trip, threatening “we must respond to it further” and that it “would definitely have a large impact” – widely seen as diplomatic code threatening nuclear retaliation.
Japan did, like, summon Korea’s ambassador to explain Mr. Lee’s demagoguery, as the two countries have a habit of ordering each other’s officials to show up for what must be rather awkward meetings whenever Japanese nationalists announce that every day is Takeshima Day or when Korean truck drivers get attacked by the Japanese embassy in Seoul. I would give anything to see one of these meetings. I wonder if the officials from the two countries are actually friends, if they bow politely toward one another with the tacit understanding that all of this is rabble-rousing bullshit because the two countries are probably going to be serious allies sooner or later anyway, or just storm into the opposite party’s offices and fling their own feces at whoever gets in the way. I can’t access it now because wikileaks has been shut down, but there was a diplomatic cable from a few years (possibly decades) back when the American Ambassador in Seoul had to hang out with both his colleagues from South Korea and Japan to keep them from starting a war over these little islands.
So the question is—do you know about Dokdo? Every Korean I’ve spoken to about this has stated, with real passion, that the islands belong to the Daehan Mingook, and I was once dragged into an enormous exhibit at the top of a giant glass tower in Gyeongju highlighting numerous historical texts, written in unreadably classical Chinese, which state that Dokdo has always been Korean. I was forced to see dozens of maps, all with the same stupid arrows showing how Dokdo is closer to Ulleungdo (indisputably Korean) than Japan (indisputably not). The whole issue strikes most Americans as both annoying and bizarre, because although America has territorial disputes with different countries, Americans don’t know or care about them at all; as The Korean has written, we’re not as nationalist because we’ve never lost our country. Regardless of the history—which is obviously not completely on Korea’s side, otherwise why the dispute?—the islets are de facto Korean territory, because Korea is the country that has marines stationed there.
On the Japanese side of things—which I think few Koreans consider—Japan has been facing challenges to its territory not only from Korea, but also China and Russia as well, over the Senkaku and the Kuril Islands, respectively. After the Senkaku Boat Collision incident China suspended its exports of rare earth minerals to Japan, which meant that the entire country was unable to produce electronics; the government came out of the whole thing looking very weak indeed, which may explain why certain Japanese higher-ups like to hoot and beat their chests over Dokdo now and again, so as to drum up support from a populace which finds its lack of faith disturbing. Aside from summoning ambassadors and staging pointless protests, nothing of consequence ever results from the dispute, so it’s a pretty safe way of looking tough. The only Japanese person I ever spoke to on this subject—a handsome doctor on an airplane speaking flawless English—winced when I asked him about it and said that he didn’t care who Dokdo belonged to.
As for Lee Myung-bak, it’s obvious that he’s trying to improve his image after becoming yet another scandal-ridden lame duck Korean president. He doesn’t want to look too pro-Japanese, either, especially after bungling a military alliance with South Korea’s greatest threat a few months ago. I cannot remember encountering a Korean who approved of him, and I live in Gyeongju, a stronghold which has belonged to his party for decades. I once told my Korean wife that American presidents typically do charity work after they leave office, to which she replied: “Korean presidents go to jail!” Lee Myung-bak may be concerned about the same problem, as the Korean public has a habit of getting really tired of their leaders after five years. Most of their careers have not turned out well. No Moo-hyun committed suicide rather than go to jail, Chun Doo-hwan was almost executed by the courts, Bak Chung-hee was assassinated, and Yi Sung-man died in disgraceful exile. This little trip may be an attempt on Mr. Lee’s part to rehabilitate his image, which I don’t consider entirely necessary. His presidency has been far from perfect, but the economic growth rate in South Korea is double what it is in America—Obama would die to have these kinds of numbers—and so long as he isn’t giving money to North Korea, he’s doing an okay job, in my opinion.