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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.

  • Dan Sullivan

    The one being used at any moment is a function of the ally with whom we are conducting business. It is at a higher level than military operations when Koreans and Japanese sit at the same table. We renamed the Persian Gulf as a matter of diplomatic policy and haven’t had to unroll a map in the presence of the Iranians for years. Thus the issue is conveniently avoided in most instances.

    But the world continues to shrink. The names used by the United States are an extension of political positions taken by the State Department. The State Department remains mired in a bilateral mindset. The multilateral solution is that which Annabel Park outlined. Unfortunately, the State Department adapts at a glacial pace and so we find Governor McAuliffe stuck between a rock and a hard place. I am confident he’ll handle it.

    By the way, there is a lot of history out there and it doesn’t begin with the last century. The days when winners imposed their will at will ended with the close of World War II. This recent watershed period in human history and the fact that international borders are permeable enough for local governments to be faced with what should be national policy decisions points to the requirement for a level of sophistication not before expected of local politicians.

    In this case, it is my opinion that the legislators who decided to take this on as a local issue lacked the sophistication necessary to craft a diplomatic solution. Instead, they have deflected the issue to Governor McAuliffe and avoided personal responsibility for their actions.

  • fendertweed

    Paul Tsongas lives … the “pander bear” is back!

    What a waste of time by people in VA govt with far better things to do than pander in this idiotic way on a subject on which they have no authority, no credibility, and no business getting involved.

    Will some Korean-American civic group underwrite the cost of Va. wasting thousands and thousands of $$ needlessly revising textbooks?

    Beam me up, Scotty, there is no intelligent life on this planet….  

  • Jim B

    Apparently these do nothings are about the same as those running the house of reps.. Can’t let serious matters get in the way of stupidity.

  • kindler

    …sets a VERY bad precedent.  And I have to wonder, seeing Dick Black involved with this, if the right wing might see this as a Trojan horse to rewrite our history books in all kinds of ways — like, for example, about how the evil Woodrow Wilson usurped our freedom by creating the Federal Reserve…

    Haven’t we filled our kids’ heads with enough untrue crap?  A better idea would be to just add more history on the utter brutality that Japan exercised over Korea, China, and other countries over WWII, and Japan’s failure to fully apologize or make up for its war crimes.  This history is very relevant today, as it is at the core of the smoldering dispute between Japan and China over a few stupid little islands — which, for all its pettiness, has a small chance of setting off a catastrophic war between the world’s #2 and #3 economies.

    Just have kids read The Rape of Nanjing, and the point will be so burned into their heads that they will never forget it…