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Korean-American Leader: “VA lawmakers cannot decide what to call an international body of water”

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You may have read recently about a highly controversial issue working its way through the Virginia General Assembly right now. No, I’m not talking about Medicaid expansion, ethics reform, the DREAM Act, gay marriage, or any of the usual issues we talk about here in Virginia (e.g, transportation, education, voting rights, guns, energy, environment…). Believe it or not, I’m talking about an issue usually left to the U.S. State Department (that’s their map to the right), the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, negotiations between the countries concerned, etc. This is the issue.

Every General Assembly session produces a few wacky-sounding bills, but rarely do they inspire a foreign government to hire a stable of high-priced lobbyists and dispatch its ambassador to Richmond for a sit-down with the governor.

Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, met with Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and legislative leaders Wednesday to discuss legislation that most people in the Capitol had dismissed as obscure, if not silly. It would require that any new textbooks purchased for Virginia schools note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea.

Three Northern Virginia legislators submitted bills this year on behalf of their Korean American constituents, who consider the Sea of Japan label a painful relic of Japanese occupation.

I understand why this issue stirs up passions. First of all, I’ve read a lot of history, including about the horrors of World War II (e.g., the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea). In addition, when I worked at the U.S. Energy Information Administration, I got emails all the time from South Koreans and Korean Americans, asking why our Country Analysis Briefs included maps which labeled the body of water in question as the “Sea of Japan.” My answer was simple: we didn’t make those maps; they came from the U.S. State Department and/or CIA World Factbook; so take it up with them. Which I’m sure they did. But today, the maps remain the same, as far as I can determine, with U.S. government policy to use “Sea of Japan,” but also to “encourage Japan and Korea to work together to reach a mutually agreed way forward on this issue.”

I was curious what Annabel Park — a filmmaker (and good friend of mine) who was born in South Korea and who has worked on issues of concern to Koreans, including acting as “the national coordinator for the 121 Coalition, organizing a historic grassroots effort to successfully pass U.S. House Resolution 121, also known as the “comfort women” resolution” — thought of all this. Here’s what Annabel had to say when I chatted with her yesterday.

*”Virginia lawmakers cannot decide what to call an international body of water.”

*”This should be left up to scholars and diplomats and processes such as the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names.”

*”It sets a terrible precedent with foreign countries that they can lobby state lawmakers for what’s in our textbooks.”

Although I certainly see where Korean Americans are coming from, and to a large extent agree with them on the substance of the matter, I agree with Annabel on this one. I simply don’t believe that this issue should be dealt with at the state level. What next, should our state’s textbooks also be amended to deal with naming disputes over the Persian/Arabian Gulf, Macedonia/FYROM, Falkland/Malvinas Islands, West Bank/Judea and Samaria, etc, etc? Do we really want to go down this road? I’m not convinced it would be helpful, unless and until the countries involved work it out among themselves. Which they haven’t done yet.