In the face of Pyongyang’s furious protest, the Seoul government indicated it would return to “quiet diplomacy” on North Korean refugees . . . .
— UPI, Aug. 17, 2004
On the human rights issue in North Korea, [Prime Minister Han Myeong-Sook] stated that “the government deals with improving the North Korean human rights record and maintaining peace on the Korean peninsula with actions rather than words,” and went on to say that “providing humanitarian aid to the North is an effort to improve human rights record in the North in regard to livelihood.
— The Donga Ilbo, April 18, 2006
The two Koreas may discuss the threatened incursion of a Japanese research vessel into Korea’s exclusive economic zone during the inter-Korean ministerial talks starting in Pyongyang this Friday.
— The Chosun Ilbo, April 18, 2006
I am the third among my co-bloggers to talk about the latest offensive in Operation Tokdo Freedom ©, which may be a reflection of the fact that I don’t give two shits who actually owns Tokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt Rocks. You could give it to Kim Jong Il to test his expanding nuclear arsenal for all I care. Some things worth dying for, but Tokdo isn’t on any reasonable person’s list of them. Late word is that Japan may put off the hydrographic survey that’s caused the latest drama, hopefully past the next South Korean election.
The issue is fascinating in one way, however. The “quietness” of South Korea’s diplomacy with its neighbors seems inversely proportional to both the number of lives at stake and the tendency of its interlocutor to prefer to resolve disputes peacefully.
Some Perspective, Please
Whether it matters or not, however, Tokdo is what everyone is talking about in Seoul today, not the half of Korea that’s starving, enslaved, and oppressed by a despotic dynasty three centuries an anachronism. Not today’s comfort women in the brothels of Dalian, hostages to the empty bellies of their babies. Not South Koreans abducted and held against their will in a prison state. Not the Chinese colonization of the port at Rajin and the railroad that leads from there to the Chinese border. Not the decline of Korea’s alliance with the United States, which had brought half of Korea to an era of unprecedented freedom, prosperity, and cultural revitalization.
Not any of these things, but Tokdo, an uninhabited, windswept, unarable pile of crap-encrusted rocks halfway between Japan and Korea, of little use to either except as a political symbol of the nations’ mutual antipathy. The only crop that will ever be harvested from the rocks of Tokdo is demagoguery.
Why I Don’t Care: The Long Version
Suddenly, all talk in Korea seems to be about Tokdo. No one dares question whether Tokdo is worth threatening hostilities with a more powerful neighbor and trading partner, so let me be the first. There is really only one resource Tokdo could possibly offer — other than guano — and that’s the surrounding fisheries. That presumes, of course, that Tokdo would somehow expand the boundaries of South Korea’s exclusive economic zone. Not the case, according to this site, which incidentially concedes that South Korea has the better claim to the barren rocks themselves:
Because these islets are physically large “rocks,” which have not been inhabited in a continuous fashion until the recent military-type occupation, under the rule laid down in Article 121(3) of the Law of the Sea Convention they probably should not be entitled to generate an exclusive economic zone or a continental shelf, and their maritime zone should thus be limited to a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea enclave. Except for their own territorial-sea enclave, therefore, they probably should not affect the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf between South Korea and Japan.
What I suspect, but could find no evidence to prove, is that Tokdo’s distance from any South Korean port would likely mean that the costs of fuel would make fishing there prohibitively expensive.
This Means War!
Having expended this energy explaining the reasons I don’t care about Tokdo, I shift to the vitriol that South Koreans are expending over it as a Japanese maritime research vessel prepares to survey the nearby seabed. As a result, outraged Koreans are calling for measures that the unnecessary and very possibly deliberate mass starvation of millions of North Koreans apparently did not warrant.
There is a growing feeling in government circles that Korea’s so-called “silent” diplomacy toward Japan has had its day after news that Tokyo is planning to send a research vessel into the country’s exclusive economic zone near Dokdo. They want an end to the consensus that the national interest is best served by ignoring Japan’s low-level provocations over the East Sea islets it covets.
Just how far might things go?
A meeting of ministers on Monday decided that if any incursion happens, Korea is within its rights to seize the vessel. Some are even saying that Seoul needs to expel Japanese Ambassador Shotaro Oshima, since the provocation is not an isolated event but merely the latest in a long line.
Will cooler heads prevail? Not bloody likely unless they have addresses in Tokyo. Korea’s president, the lamest of ducks and in desperate need of an issue with which he can define himself, had this to say:
President Roh Moo-hyun told a meeting with ruling and opposition party representatives on Tuesday, “While we have been conducting a silent diplomacy for several years, Japan has been shifting to the offensive. If a Japanese government vessel intrudes into our exclusive economic zone, we have no alternative but to regard it as an act of invasion.” The Korea Coast Guard has decided to deploy 18 patrol vessels to stop the Japanese vessel from intruding.
Roh’s Foreign Minister says this:
In a classic “who blinks first” standoff, Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon warned yesterday that Tokyo would be responsible for the consequences if it moved ahead with a seabed-mapping voyage to waters near Dokdo, off Korea’s east coast.
Emphasis mine. The Chosun Ilbo, flagship of the Korean conservative oppostion press, fulminates:
The plan in Tokyo has long been to eventually take the Dokdo issue to the International Court of Justice. The tactic would use the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, where the conflict mechanism is simple, as a stepping stone. The planned hydrographic survey in seas near Dokdo is a small part of the big picture.
. . . .
If the government is so incompetent, the people must take over. Each citizen must make it clear that they are willing to safeguard the Dokdo islets and repel Japan’s stealthy invasion.
That could easily be understood as a call for individual acts of violence. So much for the peaceful resolution of disputes and what’s left of global respect for the South Korean people. The Korea Times touts this as inter-party unity against a common enemy, but it’s really a competition among multiple factions of several parties, each trying to out-demagogue the others, even if it means that people will die needlessly. And as an apparent offering to bloggers with a taste for irony, they added a footnote:
The two parties also agreed to form another special parliamentary panel aimed at encouraging the reconciliatory atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula, which will also deal with North Korean human rights issues.
Here’s to quiet diplomacy.
If, unlike me, you actually give a flying fuck about who actually owns Tokdo/Takeshima, I recommend what The Flying Yangban has already said on the matter. This piece in the Korea Times has some in-depth discussion about the legal status of the disputed boundary between the exclusive economic zones.
Map Credits: The Korea Times
Photo: The Donga Ilbo