Thursday, April 28, 2011

Two rocks! Two rocks! Half my kingdom for two rocks!

Every country, naturally, has its red herrings, the meaningless non-issues that develop into significant issues. In Korea, this issue is Dokdo. Boiled down simply, these are two islands in the sea between Korea and Japan. Korea controls them and has for decades, but Japan claims them. The issue provides the nationalists on both sides with something to talk about.

I've documented the issue here before, but with this week being North Korean Freedom Week, I thought I would raise the issue of the country that claims not just a tiny part of South Korea, but all of South Korea. This country, of course, is North Korea.

Not only is this country a significant military threat to South Korea, but it also prints textbooks showing Seoul, Busan, Jeju and every piece of South Korean soil as part of North Korea. As far as North Korea is concerned, South Korea doesn't really exist, it's just 남조선, the southern part of North Korea.

Despite the egregious textbooks and the military aggression in the face of financial and food aid, South Koreans never really get too bent out of shape about North Korea. After all, why should they? Even though the North Korean issue involves starvation, hundreds of thousands in prison camps and the world's worst dictatorship an hour's drive away from Seoul, resolving the issue is neither possible nor particularly feasible.

For a fashionable, liberal but still patriotic South Korean in their 20s or 30s, the Dokdo issue is a great way to feel like they're doing something to improve the international standing of their country while not really doing too much. All you have to do is list your location on Twitter as being in Dokdo or to pass along some tempest in a teapot about Google not showing Dokdo as part of Korea or referring to Dokdo by its Japanese name.

Thus, it falls to the much-maligned older generation of South Korea, the one thats backwards, conservative and the source of everything that's wrong with the country, to defend the other half of Korea. Officially, South Korea not only does not recognize North Korea, but its constitution defines its territory as all of the Korean peninsula. Needless to say, South Korea is not known officially as South Korea.

The younger the Korean, the less knowledgeable and interested he or she will be in North Korea. Memories fade with time and the gap between the two countries grows to the point that to reunite the two countries now would be to take in your homeless brother you haven't seen since childhood and buy him a mansion next to yours. North Korea, needless to say, is the issue that's convenient to ignore because it's both intractable and uncomfortable. The Dokdo issue is the one to focus on, not North Korea or even China's support for North Korea, which includes forcibly sending North Korean refugees back to North Korea to face any number of brutal, nasty fates.

Korea is hardly a stranger to the phenomenon common here and elsewhere, where people consider signing an online petition or passing on a Tweet, this decade's version of the email forward, to pass for political action. Combined with fashionable but hollow issues, the result is the prevalence of idle issues in public space. For Canadians, think of snarky liberal potshots at Stephen Harper in the form of websites and memes, ones which would not pass for serious debate were the shoe on the other foot. For Americans, a classic example was seen yesterday with the White House wading chest-deep into the debate over Barack Obama's birthplace.

None of this is particularly ground-breaking, but for some reason, we forget that Koraens are people just like us. Just as a great number of us, even the ones who think the way we do, get sidetracked by minor, unimportant issues, so do people here. Granted, it's exceedingly rare to meet the Korean who considers any action or statement on the topic of Dokdo to be excessive, but this might be like looking for an American in 2002 who thought the obsession with 9/11 was going too far, a view that's relatively common now but hard to find back then.

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