Some Japanese news outlets have described the visit as “surveillance of the enemy.” And there’s no doubt that the move is aimed at creating a territorial dispute over the Dokdo islets – particularly after Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered its staff to boycott Korean Air flights for one month beginning July 18.
Yet it does not seem quite right for the Korean government to block the Japanese lawmakers’ visit to Ulleung Island – and it doesn’t have to, either. Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan vowed to persuade Japan to voluntarily cancel the visit, citing a potential clash between the Japanese legislators and Korean civic groups. But that’s neither an appropriate nor confident approach to the issue.
Lee Jae-oh, minister without portfolio, went so far as to say that the government will use every possible means to interrupt the visit. His remarks may sound gratifying at first, but they leave room for more trouble ahead because we do not have to be exploited by Japan’s calculated action.
We’d rather recommend that our government guide the Japanese lawmakers to Ulleung Island as well as the Dokdo islets. Upon touring the Dokdo Museum, the visitors will understand why the small islands belong to Korea. In the past, the Japanese argued that Dokdo belongs to Japan because it is not visible from Ulleung Island. In good weather, however, Dokdo can be seen from Ulleung Island. The procedure for entry to the small islands is not complicated, either. All that’s needed is an application to the Ulleung County authorities.
It is possible, however, that the Japanese lawmakers will not visit Dokdo because the act of applying to visit the islets could be translated as an acceptance of Korean authority over territory. In a dispute with Russia, Japan has banned its citizens from getting Russian visas to visit four disputed islands for the same reason.
But regardless of whether the Japanese accept our offer to guide them to Dokdo or not, we should propose it first. That would be the dignified action for the government to take, because we cannot tolerate a dispute over our territory.
Shindo plans to head a team of four lawmakers from his party on Aug. 1 to the island off the eastern Korean coast as acting representative of a special territorial committee. It is a maverick and daring idea, given the sensitivity of the issue and potential fiery repercussions on Korea-Japan relations.
Shindo is inclined toward nationalism. His maternal grandfather was Tadamichi Kuribayashi, a general in the Imperial Japanese Army who died in February 1945 while commanding a defense against the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima during the Pacific campaign of World War II. A total of 20,129 Japanese soldiers died during the battle, or 96 percent of Japan’s 20,933 soldiers on the battleground. Kuribayashi has been featured in the 2006 film “Letters from Iwo Jima,” directed by Clint Eastwood, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
Shindo may be hoping to resurrect the memory of his grandfather for his heroic death and make up for the devastating defeat in Iwo Jima through the Ulleung Island campaign.
Political affiliation aside, Shindo makes a perfect team with Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, whose maternal great-great-grandfather is Ito Hirobumi, Japan’s first prime minister who spearheaded the annexation of the Joseon Dynasty.
Matsumoto recently ordered foreign ministry staff not to take flights on Korean Air after the carrier flew a test flight over the Dokdo islets. Such an emotional and self-serving order from a foreign minister who should keep all diplomatic consequences in mind and seek a new path for the country in the context of regional cooperation falls poorly in Japan’s favor. It poses as a diplomatic snub against the Korean people that could undermine security in Northeast Asia.
We can hardly expect sensible foreign affairs policy from a statesman who publicly protested a plan to build a statue of the Korean independence movement hero An Jung-geun, who assassinated Hirobumi at Mount Namsan where Japan’s colonial government headquarters had been.
We can do no more than express displeasure and resentment against Matsumoto’s instruction to boycott a civilian airline. But the planned visit to Ulleung Island by Japanese lawmakers demands us to make a choice. The politicians will arrive in Seoul through normal entry procedures and head to Ulleung Island. They will meet Korean legislators on the island and tour a Dokdo museum on the island. They will stand on the coast to look at the disputed Dokdo, or Takeshima in Japanese, 90 kilometers (56 miles) away. And they will return home.
They are free to travel anywhere in Korea, as Koreans do in Japan. But their visit to Ulleung Island is obviously motivated to stir trouble and anger. They probably hope to make as much noise as possible during their visit. They would like to see Korean protesters turn violent and wild in order to draw foreign media coverage and publicity for their Ulleung Island campaign. It is why the Seoul government is urging the politicians to call off their trip.
The government has warned that their trip could spur fiery protest and demonstrations from the Korean public. The visitors would return as heroes if they survive highly publicized attacks of stones, tomatoes and eggs. But if their visit to Ulleung Island gets a largely indifferent and cool response from the Korean public, they can appeal only to Japanese right-wing conservatives by merely reiterating that Takeshima is Japan’s, regardless of the historic and documental evidence.
What choice should we take? The best, as a JoongAng Ilbo editorial suggested, is to take the Japanese visitors on a tour of the Dokdo islets. Of course, they would choose not to believe the evidence they see on the islets, peppered with unquestionable Korean ancestral imprints. We cannot change their deeply-rooted nationalistic perspectives or their mind-sets in the name of advancing forward-looking bilateral relations.
The best we can do is to present ourselves as a sensible and tolerant host and avoid the publicity hoopla the Japanese politicians are aiming for. They can do little harm with their visit if we pay no attention. Korean legislators who are scheduled to meet them should get quick history lessons from Dokdo experts like Yuji Hosaka, professor of Sejong University, so that they can respond to the visitors with logic rather than emotion.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Young-hie