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Serious island negotiations long overdue

by Philip Brasor

As the adage goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law, though to my knowledge there is no law anywhere that codifies such an equation. The point is, if you actually hold something then it’s going to be that much harder for someone else to take it, regardless of that person’s claim of ownership. Right now, this idea bolsters South Korea’s position in the conflict over who has sovereignty over an ocean outcropping called Takeshima by the Japanese and Dokdo by the Koreans, since the latter have occupied it exclusively for the last fifty years. Japan says that it officially claimed the islands in 1905, a process Koreans couldn’t legally challenge at the time since that same year their country became a protectorate of Japan. The decades-long stalemate is occasionally interrupted by a war of words, but has not seriously affected diplomatic progress. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that Japan once colonized Korea. Old story? Sure, but that doesn’t mean the stigma doesn’t remain, so let’s say Korea gets nine-tenths for possession plus an extra one-twentieth as sympathy bonus.

The latest flareup was occasioned by President Lee Myung Bak’s visit to the islands on Aug. 10, which provoked Japan into recalling its ambassador and threatening to take the matter to the International Court of Justice. The Japanese press reacted as it always does, taking its government’s claim at face value while urging “calm,” lest the fragile detente forged since the end of World War II be “wrecked,” as Tokyo Shimbun put it in an editorial. The Mainichi, while acknowledging that Korea has “practical control” over the islands, professed perplexity over such a careless move on Lee’s part. The Yomiuri, calling Korea’s occupation “illegal,” despaired over the change in Lee’s attitude from pragmatic to reckless. The tone of the analysis suggests on the one hand a child petulantly refusing to give up something to a playmate and on the other a man whose better nature has been co-opted by nefarious forces.

Such analysis obviates the need to study the conflict objectively since it implies Korea is carrying out an agenda dictated by short-term, emotionally charged impulses. As long as Japan keeps its head the matter will settle down, though that doesn’t mean it will be resolved. Resolution requires genuine engagement. The Japanese media say that Lee visited the island in order to repair his reputation. His term is up in December, and due to a bribery scandal involving his brother his support rate has dropped, causing concern within his party. A boost of patriotic fervor stimulated by a visit to Dokdo was thus initially seen as a desperate move that had little to do with Japan.

But the visit was very much about Japan. Though it’s true Lee needs to do something to restore public confidence in his leadership, the Takeshima sojourn involved more than just reaffirming a territorial claim. Last year, the Korean Supreme Court ruled that the government must do everything in its power to “vindicate the rights” of the surviving Korean women who were forced to sexually service Japanese troops during World War II. The Japanese government, which goes out of its way to avoid anything having to do with the sex slaves, says that all compensation matters were settled years ago when the Korean government signed away its war victims’ right to petition for reparation. The Korean government, which itself did not publicly acknowledge the sex slave system until the 1990s, probably because Koreans were complicit in “recruitment,” is now compelled by law to seek some sort of satisfaction for the 63 surviving former sex slaves, who want Japan to officially acknowledge its responsibility for their suffering.

Last year, at the Korea-Japan summit in Kyoto, Lee brought this matter up with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who ignored him, and then added insult to injury by demanding that the Korean government remove a statue of a sex slave erected by private citizens across the street from the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Though the Japanese press mentioned the “comfort women” issue in their stories about the Takeshima visit, only Asahi Shimbun cited it as a central reason for the visit, a position verified when Lee emphasized it in his Liberation Day speech on Aug. 15. This doesn’t mean Asahi supports Korea’s claim, only that it presented the story in a context which explained Korea’s motives less patronizingly. Lee’s remarks, especially his demand for an imperial apology, has angered officials and probably the public as well, thus bolstering Japan’s own emotional claim on islands it can never hope to access much less control without serious negotiations. In that regard it’s different from that other territorial dispute, the one over the Senkakus, which both the national and Tokyo municipal governments want to buy in order to reinforce Japan’s sovereignty against China’s and Taiwan’s historical claims.

Japan is only buying three of the five islands. The other two are maintained by the U.S. The Senkakus are considered part of Okinawa, but when the prefecture was returned to Japan in 1972, the U.S. military retained control of privately-owned Kubashima and state-owned Taishoto, ostensibly for artillery practice, and in fact continue to refer to them by their Chinese names. In the August issue of Sekai, Narahiko Toyoshita theorizes that Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is using the U.S. to provoke China, his arch-nemesis, which is why he originally announced his plan for buying the islands at a conservative American think tank. Ishihara wants to put the islands under the protection of the Marine Self-Defense Forces, and it would aid his cause if America backed him up. Of course, the U.S. has no intention of going to war with China over the Senkakus, but it can’t help but be involved and take Japan’s side, or so Ishihara thinks. Again, possession is nine-tenths of the law, especially when partial possession is in the hands of a much bigger and stronger friend.