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Dinner Menu For Inter-Korean Summit Is Stirring Up A Side Of Controversy

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

South Korea is deep in preparations for the summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the first in over a decade between leaders from the two countries. The meeting will take place south of the Demilitarized Zone which acts as a border between the North and South. Each piece of the planning is full of symbolism and diplomacy, from the blue carpet meant to signify a new beginning to the dinner menu. But the dessert is a bit of a sticky matter internationally.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Plates of mango mousse will feature a decorative map of the Korean Peninsula. It includes a group of islands that both South Korea and Japan claim as theirs.

TAKEHIRO SHIMADA: I don't see such a map should be demonstrated in the summit meetings.

CHANG: That's Takehiro Shimada, culture minister for the Japanese embassy in Washington. He says Japan has asked South Korea to take the mousse off the menu.

SHIMADA: We are not satisfied with the map-eating good here under the Takeshima, which is Japanese territory.

SHAPIRO: Well, Takeshima is the name Japan gives the islands.

JEAN LEE: South Korea calls it Dokdo.

SHAPIRO: That's Jean Lee, director of the Korea Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She says the island is right in the middle of the two countries. It's a leftover tension from World War II when Japan occupied the Peninsula.

LEE: And the Japanese and the Koreans go back and forth, producing ancient documents to prove that this has always been considered Korean territory or this has long been considered Japanese territory. It's really a point of contention that hints at that difficult relationship that goes back decades.

SHAPIRO: So back to that mango mousse, sending a diplomatic message through food is nothing new.

CHANG: Former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses says when planning menus for diplomatic dinners, politics is always mixed in.

BILL YOSSES: Even though as a chef you're on the periphery of everything that's happening, you soon develop a kind of ear for the general tenor of the meeting. You learn to listen carefully to all the nuances.

SHAPIRO: So will South Korea change the menu to appease Japan? Not likely, says Jean Lee.

LEE: I can't say that this was deliberate. Although, trust me. The South Koreans in general understand the significance of including Dokdo. That's a political statement.

SHAPIRO: Lee says this is one of the few things North and South Korea agree on. So the map might actually encourage unity between them, no matter how tough it may be for Japan to swallow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.