[BICYCLING AROUND KOREA (8)] Dokdo:Symbol of Korean identity

Intrepid Korea Herald correspondent Frank Smith is cycling around Korea for four weeks bringing local stories to our readers. The former Vancouver bicycle courier will visit more than 20 locations from Seogwipo to Panmunjeom. – Ed.

DOKDO, North Gyeongsang Province – Just a bunch of volcanic rocks sticking out of the ocean in the middle of nowhere; hardly worth a three-hour ferry and $40. And after the ride there, you may not even be able to step ashore, but only circle the area for a while and then return. So why go?

These islets in the middle of the East Sea, a bit closer to Korean territory than Japan’s, are both a symbol of the Korean nation and a flashpoint of nationalist sentiment. The presence of Dokdo in the Korean psyche is a complicated issue linked to the country’s history with Japan.

A great deal has been written and said about the status of the islets. Both Korea and Japan have strong claims that the small islands and outcroppings, also known as the Liancourt Rocks, are their sovereign territory.

Although some analysts argue that Korea has the better claim, including Stanford’s Dr. Sean Fern, other experts suggest that Korea would lose their case if the matter were brought to the International Court of Justice, as Japan demands.

Lim Sung-kyu, of Korea’s nearest territory, Ulleung Island, says that Korea will not accept Japan’s invitation to go to arbitration over the Dokdo issue because the country occupies the islands, and does not need to take a chance.

Most observers agree with Lim, who declares: “Korea will never give up those islands.”

Held with equal conviction is the deep sentiment that Koreans have attached to the rocks. “Even though Dokdo is a small group of islands, it has a profound meaning for Koreans,” said Park Hyun-jung, a home-maker from Donghae, North Gyeongsang Province, the same province which claims Dokdo. She argues that heated nationalism in Korea is ignited by ultra-nationalist pronouncements from Japan.

“If the Japanese kept silent, and accepted Korea`s sovereignty over Dokdo, it would not be an issue here. Much like the issue of China’s claim that Goguryeo was part of China. These distortions of history must be addressed to preserve the Korean nation,” she added.

Koreans know their history well, especially in terms of Dokdo, which was incorporated into the Silla Kingdom, Korea’s precursor, in 512.

Such information is drummed into Koreans in elementary and middle school. If students do not pay attention in class, the 1998 Korean hit, “Dokdo islands are our territory” puts the Dokdo lesson to music.

The strong feelings Koreans have about the islands are closely related to the country’s occupation by Japanese forces, and the re-emergence of ultra-nationalism in Japan. Linked to the Dokdo issue are former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi`s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals guilty of atrocities against Koreans are honored as gods. Also weighing on the Korean psyche are Japanese textbooks which gloss over the brutality of Japan’s imperialist past, and pronouncements by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggesting that Korean “comfort women” chose to serve Japanese soldiers.

This behavior, though perhaps intended for a domestic Japanese audience, riles Koreans and puts them on guard. But still one wonders whether that ferry trip is worth the bother. “It doesn`t make sense to go there just for 15 minutes or to do a couple of laps around the islands”, confessed Lim, who has resisted the temptation to make the journey from his Ulleung Island home.

But perhaps those reasons are part of what makes that ferry trip and the perilous return so worthwhile. The other motivation may be that one desire so strong in this culture: to belong.

On this journey, the sea was too rough to allow the ship to dock, so the boat circled the beloved islands while all hands were on deck, photographing Korea’s Natural Monument #336, and perhaps exercising a Korean rite. On the way back, many paid a heftier price. Half a dozen people collapsed with seasickness, and the ship`s hands were busy collecting special garbage bags from at least 50 other passengers.”Later that evening, on the voyage back to the mainland, the heavy seas would claim at least one more victim. But now that passenger has a souvenir: a small ticket stub reading “destination Dokdo;” that may offer some weight to an adopted national identity, tucked into a Canadian passport.

Korea Hearld
Date : Nov. 07, 2007
Writer : Frank Smith

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