Last week, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a bill he had promised Korean constituents he would sign, quietly and to very little fanfare. The reason is probably because, by then, he had succeeded in alienating both the Koreans he had courted as a candidate and the Japanese he tried to mollify as governor.
As I reported in Washington City Paper‘s March 7 cover story, both McAuliffe and his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli had pledged to cater to the Virginia Korean community’s No. 1 demand, a law mandating that public school textbooks mention that the body of water officially called the Sea of Japan by the U.S. is also known as the East Sea, the name preferred by Koreans. The name of this body of water has been a point of contention for Koreans, whose cultural identity was suppressed and whose voice before international bodies was muzzled under Japanese colonial rule, a source of friction—-one of many—-between the two countries going back centuries.
The East Sea bill became the rallying crusade of Virginia’s 82,000-strong Korean community and the inaugural project of its newly organized lobby, headed by Chantilly paralegal Peter Kim, despite its irrelevance to nearly everyone else in the commonwealth. So when McAuliffe and Cuccinelli ran for governor, backing it was a no brainer. Until the Japanese government got wind of it, and pressured then-Governor-elect McAuliffe to kill it, saying good relations and billions in Japanese investments in Virginia were at stake. McAuliffe, while never changing his public position that he would sign the bill if it reached his desk, then engaged allies in the General Assembly in a not-so-secret effort to make sure it never did. Republicans, smelling a flip flop story, rallied behind the bill and it passed last month. McAuliffe, bowing to a veto-proof majority, signed the bill as he originally promised, on March 31. By signing it into law over Japan’s objections, McAuliffe almost certainly angers the Japanese, but by now, his machinations to undermine it have also angered the Koreans.
The new law will take effect June 1. Campaigns for similar bills are underway in other states including New York, New Jersey, and Georgia, and at the county level in Maryland. They will likely change little because most U.S. textbooks already print both names in their latest editions, due to parallel lobbying efforts by Korean Americans aimed at textbook and atlas publishers; if anything, such laws will simply incentivize schools to replace older editions with newer ones.
So if there’s any real legacy for Virginia’s maps saga, it can serve as a textbook lesson for governors in other states on how not to handle an ethno-geopolitical conflict. My story is reprinted in the April issue of KoreAm magazine.