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Biographic Sketch & Links: Donald Kirk
History troubles Japan, Korea ...
SEOUL - People are starving and dying in North Korea and the North Korean government is threatening the world with nuclear weapons, so what's getting South Korea worked up these days?
Answer: An outcropping of rocky islets known to Koreans as Dokdo and to the Japanese as Takeshima.
It is the symbolism of these islets that is so important. They remind Koreans of humiliation under 35 years of Japanese rule, and they raise a terrifying specter: Could it happen again?
Could a militarily resurgent Japan, under some right-wing leader, see the Korean peninsula as both a threat and a stepping stone to domination of Asia? It was, after all, for control of Korea that the Japanese fought first the Chinese to a standstill in 1895 and then defeated the Russians a decade later - a prelude to Japan's takeover of all of Korea and much of the rest of the region.
For Koreans, those memories burn in the subconscious while North Korea, whose troops invaded the South in 1950 at the outset of by far the bloodiest war ever fought on Korean soil, remains somehow a distant apparition. Nobody in Korea to whom I've spoken believes North Korean troops are about to invade again. Nobody imagines, in the face of North Korea's rhetoric about the need for nuclear weapons as defense against a "pre-emptive strike" by the United States, that North Korea is remotely likely to explode one of those nuclear warheads. In fact, since North Korea has yet to conduct a real-live nuclear test, it's far from certain whether the North has the technology to fire a warhead on the tip of one of its vaunted missiles - or even to drop one out of an airplane.
The fact is, however, that Japan nowadays is not much of a threat either. President Roh Moo Hyun, when he declared "diplomatic war" with Japan for numerous offenses, real and imagined, neglected to point out the Japanese aren't for a minute contemplating a "pre-emptive strike" on Dokdo, which happens to be occupied by a South Korean police garrison. In fact, Dokdo is such a peaceful place that boatloads of Koreans tourists go there regularly to trample about this strange collection of rocky promontories out there in the East Sea - that is, the East Sea as it's known to Koreans, the Sea of Japan as the Japanese and most of the rest of the world call the body of water between the Korean peninsula and Japan.
If Roh's peculiarly undiplomatic remarks had any seriously positive impact, it was to encourage a tourist trade to a destination that offers no beaches, no swimming, no fun and games - indeed nothing other than a chance to look over one of the world's more obscure flashpoints.
The question that Roh's outburst provokes is whether it was all a diversionary tactic - an effort to show himself as a tough-talking leader while deflecting attention from the infinitely more sensitive and complicated issue of North Korea.
Was it for this reason that Roh, when he saw the American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice during her recent swing through Japan, South Korea and China, spent most of his time lecturing her about Dokdo and Japan?
While Rice no doubt learned a great deal about Korean national complexes, she got nowhere in her efforts to convince South Koreans of the need for a tough stance if North Korea is ever to return to talks about its nukes, much less to abandon the whole program.
The impression in Seoul is that the United States and Japan are working to intimidate Koreans, North and South. The image is that of two wealthy, powerful bully-boys trying to impose their will while North and South Korea just want to engage in peaceful pursuits. Under the circumstances, North and South Korea turn to China - North Korea has no other friend, and South Korea increasingly sees China as a balancing force against the weight of the United States and Japan.
The South Korean gambit is a dangerous one. There is no chance of war with Japan. North Korean troops, let alone the North's nuclear weapons, remain a threat within artillery range of Seoul. North Korea may not be about to declare a second Korean War while the North Korean regime is increasingly isolated and the country suffers from unremitting hardships, but a Korean crisis looms if the North fails to talk. The Dokdo flap may be a reminder of historic oppression by a foreign power but a distraction from much more serious business, much closer to Korea's self-interest and survival.
Donald Kirk has written six books on Asian issues, including two on Korea.