“Dancing together” is a skill of diplomacy that may apply even between enemies who share the common goal of generating political gain in each other’s jurisdiction by dancing together.
“Dancing together” seems to explain why the Dokdo issue has recently escalated.
Of course, initial responsibility for this dispute lies among the leaders of an elite Japanese group. They never heartily recognized the harm they inflicted on neighboring peoples before and during the colonial war period.
Obviously, they do not have genuine intentions to pay reparations to the “comfort” women or their descendants and to correct ultra-right wing views as described in their history books for the next generation of Korean and Japanese students.
Without solving this puzzle by themselves, how can historical healing and mutually-beneficial coexistence between former colonial powers and colonized countries begin in Northeast Asia?
Korean politicians are also to blame. Their excuse to escalate the territorial dispute with Japan is to pressure the Japanese leadership to solve the historical puzzle.
However, they are well aware that territorial escalations will only delay any problem-solving efforts between neighboring countries.
By creating headlining tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, political leaders on both sides are seeking immediate political gains.
Indeed, the falling level of popularity of the political leaderships in Korea and Japan is due to their respective current hard-line policies against each other.
Tacit agreement of “dancing together” between political leaders across the East Sea seems to exist and functions well.
Other than this popularity gain that is evanescent, there is nothing to gain from engaging in a hot debate over the islands between the neighboring countries.
The status quo is that Dokdo is under Korean sovereignty, and has effectively been occupied by Korea for more than half a century.
Experts acknowledge that the basic position of the Japanese government is not to break that status quo ― despite its political gesture of occasional protests ― because such breakage may only generate more troubling confrontations with the neighboring states including China.
This means that there is no need for Korea to escalate the territorial dispute with Japan.
Any further escalation will only make it more difficult to solve bilateral problems, and have ramifications for economic, social and military relations between the two countries.
Already, serious symptoms are evident: for example, the only market in which the invisible-horse dance by the Korean singer Psy is not popular is Japan.
At the same time, Korean and Japanese leaders need to be aware that their dancing together will necessarily induce the Chinese leadership into the political popularity game.
Having its own territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands with Tokyo, Beijing cannot afford to remain silent. Indeed, the territorial confrontation has become an infectious disease in the region.
While global society is actively engaging in dialogues to pursue comprehensive regional economic integrations such as Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), ASEAN plus Six, and Pan-European Cumulation Zone, Northeast Asia is struggling with a vicious cycle of debate over territories.
It seems impossible to initiate talks for the Korea-China-Japan trilateral Free Trade Agreement any time soon, not to mention any genuine arrangements for financial, cultural and environmental cooperation in the region.
One may hope that politicians will cool down soon, and stop exploiting the corrosive emotions of people and stimulating ultra-right groups in both nations.
If this hope is helpless, and if their dancing together doesn’t cease, it might become inevitable for the international community to intervene in order to prevent a serious crisis in Northeast Asia.
Indeed, it is likely that Japan will unilaterally send a written submission to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) soon, stating its claim over Dokdo.
It is true that without consent of the Korean government, the ICJ cannot exercise jurisdiction over the dispute.
Nonetheless, upon further escalation, the Security Council of the United Nations might confirm the existence of this international dispute (despite the persistent denial of it by the Korean government) and recommend that Korea and Japan solve the dispute peacefully under the United States judicial system.
As a responsible member of the U.N. system, with its citizen being the secretary general, Korea cannot continuously ignore such recommendation.
Unfortunately for Korea, it is obvious that the current political atmosphere in the region seems to drive the Korean people gradually into this possible scenario.
Although politicians are short-sighted, bureaucrats and people in Korea need to be prepared for that possibility on a long term basis.
Their preparation should start by answering a series of questions: Is Korea ready for legal debates in the international court?
While the final text of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952 is silent about the territorial ownership over Dokdo, can Korea still persuade ICJ judges by relying upon its drafting context in which colonial imperialism of Japan is generally condemned?
Can Korea make a credible and acceptable submission based on the ancient Korean record called the “Samguk Sagi”, which refers to a Korean general named Yi Sa-bu who conquered the Usan Kingdom, which allegedly included Ulleung Island and its satellite Dokdo?
How can Korea prove that its occupation of Dokdo over 60 years is “continuous and peaceful control” while Japan has regularly expressed its opposition and protest against the Korean occupation?
If answers to these questions are not apparent or if the answer is not confidently “yes,” my recommendation to the Korean people is that they should spend precious time and energy studying hard to substantiate their claims, instead of going out on the streets where disputes will only escalate.
Plus, they should remember not to vote for those politicians who imposed those questions on them.
Choi Won-mog is a former law professor at Ewha Womans University.