Name Games

A Bush administration official recounts how, in the high stakes diplomacy over disputed territory, a tenuous peace can unravel because of a single typo.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

When you work at the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), early-morning phone calls are almost never good news. This is especially true when the person on the other end of the line is a foreign embassy official.

When my home phone rang at 7:00 a.m. that Sunday in July 2008, a colleague from the South Korean Embassy was on the other end of the line. After a quick apology for disturbing me at such an early hour, he expressed his “deep concern” about Washington’s “new stance” on South Korea’s sovereignty over Dokdo, a disputed group of small islets in the Sea of Japan (or East Sea, to the Koreans). He wanted to know what was behind the apparent change in U.S. policy. I recall him mentioning a “BGN website,” making reference to “undesignated sovereignty,” and indicating that his government was seeking immediate clarification of the issue.

As a general rule, it is not a good idea to engage officers of foreign embassies on matters of U.S. foreign policy before you’ve had your coffee. That said, I do remember telling my caller that I was unaware of any change in our government’s policy with respect to Dokdo. I promised to follow up with him as soon as I could get to the office.

After hanging up with the Korean official, my first step (after turning on the coffee pot) was to Google “BGN” in an attempt to understand what he had been talking about. I learned that BGN was an acronym for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a federal body administered by the Interior Department. Following that I went to the office to begin drafting the memo needed to brief my ultimate boss, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and to prepare him for the flurry of meeting requests from the Korean and Japanese embassies that I expected would begin the following day.

At issue was the disputed sovereignty of a cluster of rocky islets in the sea between Korea and Japan referred to as “Dokdo” in South Korea, “Takeshima,” in Japan and “Liancourt Rocks” in the United States. These islets had been on NSC’s radar earlier that summer as tensions between Tokyo and Seoul rose due to reports that the Japanese government planned to issue an educational guideline stating that the islets were a part of Japan’s national territory.

The Sunday morning phone call was apparently triggered by Korean press reports over the weekend highlighting that BGN changed the text in the “country” column of its online database from “South Korea” to “undesignated sovereignty.” It also changed the name of the islets from “Dokdo” to “Liancourt Rocks.” Although BGN’s new designations were entirely consistent with longstanding U.S. policy to not take a position on the islets’ sovereignty, the fact that these changes were apparently the only corrections BGN made at this time (even though its database reportedly contained several other errors) heightened suspicions in Seoul and provided an opportunity for the lively South Korean media to spin the changes as a shift in Washington’s stance undertaken in response to Japanese pressure.

The incident came at an extremely awkward moment, as it occurred only days before President George W. Bush’s scheduled Aug. 5 to 6 stop in Seoul on the first leg of an Asia trip that would also see him visiting Bangkok and the Beijing Olympics. The president had postponed a previously scheduled visit to Seoul because of widespread protests in South Korea over the government’s plans to resume imports of U.S. beef. It was apparent that the current situation might serve as a rallying cry for renewed anti-American protests.

As I left the office on Sunday evening I sensed that the week ahead, already packed with preparations for the president’s upcoming departure for Asia, would be busier than expected.

Monday, July 28, 2008

When I returned to work the next morning, on my desk was a stack of South Korean press reports blasting the “new U.S. stance on Dokdo” and Washington’s “pro-Japan bias.” A July 29 editorial in Hankyoreh argued, “Japan’s provocations over Dokdo are in the same vein as its attempts to rationalize its history of imperialist aggression” and excoriated the United States for creating “unnecessary factors for discord.”

Our job that morning was setting the record straight: BGN’s designation change did not represent a policy shift on the part of the United States. Rather it was an innocent effort by a U.S. government entity to align its previously incorrect database listing with the longstanding U.S. position.

State Department acting deputy spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos had the first opportunity to publicly address the issue at the daily briefing. In response to a question on BGN’s actions, he emphasized, “The U.S. position for decades has been to not take a position regarding the sovereignty of the islands in question. As we’ve said in the past, the question of the sovereignty of these islets is for Japan and Korea to resolve peacefully between themselves.”

The other major activity in NSC’s Office of Asian Affairs that morning was receiving several démarches, first from the South Koreans and later the Japanese. By the end of the day, my desk was covered with glossy brochures from the South Korean and Japanese embassies, each explaining why Dokdo/Takeshima is “our sovereign territory.”

In our meetings that day with colleagues from the South Korean Embassy, we echoed the points made in the State Department briefing. They seemed to accept our reiteration of U.S. policy but remained concerned that the listing change might have been a response to Japanese pressure. The general gist of their comments was: “Even if this is not a policy shift, what drove BGN to make this change at such a sensitive moment in Tokyo-Seoul relations?”

It was a reasonable question. Unfortunately, at the time we did not have an immediate answer. We knew for certain that the White House had not requested the change. Later calls to the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) at the State Department and the Office of Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Defense Department — the two departments’ lead offices on East Asia policy — confirmed that they had made no contact with BGN on this issue prior to the change.

As the day progressed, I was able to piece together a rendering of events that seemed plausible. According to what I learned, the U.S. Library of Congress received a call (from exactly whom no one was able to determine at that time) inquiring about U.S. policy on the islets. A library employee then looked up the classification on BGN’s website, found that it was inconsistent with his or her understanding of our neutral position with respect to the islands’ sovereignty, and notified BGN, which made the change. Boom: international incident.

Our initial investigation may not have revealed the complete story, nor all the relevant facts, but what was more important at that point was confirming that BGN acted independently of any policy guidance from within the U.S. government. It was also clear that BGN had no idea that its actions would create a diplomatic row that would ultimately be resolved by the U.S. president himself.

We communicated our finding to our colleagues at the South Korean Embassy. Unfortunately, this information did not appease the South Korean media, which continued in the coming days to suggest that BGN’s new listing must have been an element of some grander scheme to favor Japan in this dispute.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Despite clear public statements from the State Department and our private assurances to our Korean colleagues, the South Korean government continued to be assaulted by the country’s press. The embassy in Washington felt the greatest heat during that period. On Tuesday, reports from Seoul indicated that South Korean Ambassador to Washington Lee Tae-sik, who was accused of “negligence of duty” by various media outlets for not blocking BGN’s designation change, might be fired over the incident. The Korean media also reported that Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan had ordered the South Korean Embassy to “deliver our concern” to the United States.

Korean concerns reached the highest level of the U.S. government on Tuesday when Lee, who was attending an unrelated White House event, took the opportunity to make the case for reversing the change directly to President Bush. Responding to Lee’s request, the president immediately directed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to look into the designation change and determine exactly what took place.

By the time the president’s order reached Foggy Bottom, intense efforts were already under way in the State Department to determine the events leading to the designation change and, equally important, to consider options to defuse the situation.

The president’s personal involvement and his upcoming visit to Seoul gave us a sense of urgency. Rather than through the usual interagency meetings, which can be cumbersome, the work was carried out in a series of direct interactions between the NSC’s Office of Asian Affairs (my office) and the State Department’s EAP Bureau, particularly the Korea desk.

First, we compared notes on our conversations with BGN and other affected agencies of the U.S. government to come to a more complete understanding of the situation. We also developed and discussed three options to attempt to resolve the crisis:

1. We could eliminate access to (i.e., “take down”) the BGN website. It would be “under construction” until all necessary corrections and changes could be made, at which time a “new and improved” website could be launched under more controlled circumstances.

2. We could leave the website as it was following the BGN corrections (i.e., with the “Dokdo/South Korea” entry changed to “Liancourt Rocks/undesignated sovereignty”). Under this option we would leave other unrelated errors uncorrected for the time being.

3. We could reverse the BGN changes (i.e., revert to the status quo ante) while continuing preparations for a complete website overhaul in the future.

As with many thorny diplomatic issues, this was not a matter of choosing between options that were clearly “good” or “bad,” but rather of selecting among a number of sub optimal alternatives. The first option was eventually ruled out when we learned that other entities of the U.S. government rely on the information contained in the BGN database on a real-time basis. Taking down the website would have created a new thread of problems, and there was no speedy way to re-create its functionality elsewhere.

The second option was appealing in that it allowed the website to remain running and remain at least more accurate than it was before the change. But leaving the website up, as it was, provided a focal point for some in the South Korean media to whip up anti-American sentiment. With the president’s visit less than a week away, there was a real downside to this option, though we briefly considered a variant of it — leaving the website up while attaching a footnote to the Liancourt/Dokdo/Takeshima entry in the database that would clarify the U.S. policy of neutrality with respect to the islands’ sovereignty. This proved impossible for technical reasons.

The third option made sense from the standpoint of tamping down Korean anger in the near term (albeit at the risk of possibly arousing Japanese anger), but it seemed conceptually strange to reverse a correction to what was obviously an error.

By the evening of July 29, we had concluded that there were no easy ways out.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

On Wednesday, when Hadley briefed Bush on the progress of our deliberations, the president did as presidents do: He made a decision.

Following Ambassador Lee’s intervention the day before, Bush had made clear his desire to defuse the crisis as quickly as possible. He did not want the BGN issue to distract from the key strategic issues on the table during his upcoming visit. These included the North Korea nuclear program, the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the realignment of U.S. forces in South Korea, and the overall strengthening and expansion of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Clearly, a continuation of the Seoul media storm might complicate his upcoming visit, but it was also apparent that the situation was creating real difficulties for a friend and ally. Moreover, the immediate cause of the problem lay in Washington, not Seoul. Bush had developed a high regard for President Lee Myung-bak, and he did not wish to cause a good friend of the United States any undue political difficulty.

Thus, the president chose option three: He directed that the changes in BGN’s database be reversed with the aim of deflating media criticisms of the South Korean government and the speculation regarding U.S. motives.

Hadley relayed the president’s decision to my boss, senior director for East Asian Affairs Dennis Wilder, on July 30, who announced the decision later that day during a press conference on the president’s upcoming trip to Asia.

It worked. Changing the sovereignty designation on BGN’s website from “undesignated sovereignty” back to “South Korea” effectively removed the issue from the front pages of Korean newspapers and enabled Bush and Lee to conduct productive meetings in Seoul. As for the BGN website, the changes directed by Bush are still in place while the board works on functional upgrades to its database, but an all-important caveat has been added indicating that “the names, variants and associated data may not reflect the views of the United States Government on the sovereignty over geographic features.”

Clearly, the affair demonstrated that at least some of our government processes needed improvement. BGN’s database contained errors. An honest attempt to correct an error was, however unintentionally, done in such a way that it embarrassed a friendly government, allowed elements of a foreign media to question our government’s motives, and stirred anti-American sentiment in an important allied country. The outcome of the episode was far from perfect: It effectively appeased one of our allies while not necessarily pleasing another. Fortunately, the Japanese government was almost as eager as we were to see tensions with South Korea eased, and so it chose not to make a big issue out of our decision. And we subsequently worked with BGN and the State Department on technical and nontechnical ways we could prevent such incidents in the future.

The key elements of this story — an isolated cluster of rocks and a somewhat obscure government database — may seem inconsequential to the casual observer. But add to that mix highly emotional East Asian history and the tendency for regional governments to use these issues to bolster their nationalist credentials, and you have a recipe for diplomatic crisis. The recent flare-up between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku island chain (an uninhabited island chain west of Okinawa) provides another example of how seriously regional powers treat these maritime sovereignty issues, as well as their capacity to derail otherwise peaceful working relationships.

For the United States — which tends to view history as “the past” — becoming enmeshed in such disputes can be highly frustrating, as they have the tendency to bring work on more “current” issues to a screeching halt. But ignoring them is not an option. The rocks, and the intense emotions that swirl around them, are not going away anytime soon. In the meantime, Washington will try to keep its East Asian friends focused in a more hopeful direction: on the region’s bright future.

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