What is it with Dokdo Island?

August 31, 2010

I’m going to get in trouble with this entry no matter what, so I better check all my facts. It’s worth mentioning that during my two years in Japan, I never heard mention of Dokdo Island (독도 or Takeshima, 竹島, as it is known in Japan), though I did hear about disputed territory north of Hokkaido and other topical issues.

Let me say from the start, speaking as someone more or less ignorant on the importance of the island, and having no permanent ties to Korea or Japan, I really don’t see the big deal. Two years ago, when I ended my Japanese residency and briefly returned to Dallas, Texas, I was driving through Koreatown and came across this billboard:

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Dokdo Island? Didn’t look that big in the photograph. And why distribute such propaganda in the middle of Texas? A quick internet such was all I needed to get the basics. Dokdo is an island in the East Sea, sandwiched between the Ulleung Island of Korea and the Oki Islands of Japan. As you can tell from the picture, it’s not much to look at: two main islets and 35 small rocks, less than a quarter square kilometer area. Two Korean citizens permanently reside on this chunk of “paradise”, but other than their presence, there’s not a lot going on.

Let me come back to the history surrounding this territory dispute in a moment. For now, let me just say I’ve never a country more blindly determined to stake its claim to a seemingly worthless island (rich fishing waters aside). It’s mind boggling:

– If billboards like that exist in Texas, they could be all over the world. There are absurdly large Korean communities outside Korea, all apparently dedicated to telling the natives Dokdo is theirs.

– In 2005, Japan announced a Takeshima Day holiday in Shimane-ken. Koreans responded by protesting, cutting of their fingers, and setting themselves on fire.

– I’ve seen examples of this in food. There’s a Dokdo sushi restaurant in Austin and Dallas, and a Dokdo brand name water in Korea:

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“Dokdo… oooh, it must be Korean territory! I ate the sushi at a Dokdo restaurant and it was so good! The Japanese don’t have a Dokdo restaurant!” [author’s note: as far as I know]

And those are just a few examples.

You know what? I’m not going to get into the history of this dispute. Japan has a point. Korea has a point. I’m not going to be the one to resolve anything, or tell you anything you couldn’t find with Google and a few minutes. In fact, it’s probably more likely if I did take a strong stance, someone would track me down and tell me off in person… or worse. Instead, I’ll give you this quote from the Dokdo Island is Korean Territory Facebook group:

“We do all know that it is only a rock. But we are just trying to aware Japan trying to invade us. Daema Island was ours too but they took it. They always trying to take our land…think about it! Do you want to live in a land which shakes all the time? It’s about the history. They’ve been invading us way too many times…sooooo many times!!!! That’s why guys!!! 🙂 I’m not a person who always says “Dokdo is our land” and marching… I hate doing that stuff. But I know the fact. It’s more complicated than you guys think…. it’s about the territory issue.”

That’s the one thing I do agree with; it’s not so much strategic importance or the value of the land or surrounding water, it’s just the fact Koreans don’t want the Japanese to take something they consider to be theirs. Unlike the commenter above, though… I don’t think the fact Japan is prone to earthquakes has anything to do with it. When I blogged about the aforementioned sign on Keeping Pace in Japan, it didn’t take more than an hour or so before a Korean left an unsavory comment; once he realized I wasn’t stating the island belonged to Japan, I read this:

“Sorry for my previous post…..
I thought you are talking about DokDo is belong to Japan….

Sorry about that again….”

So, let the comments fly. I’m curious to hear other perspectives on this, Korean, expat, and outsider. If you’re in country and would like to visit Dokdo, ferries depart Pohang, Hupo, and Donghae for Ulleung Island at 10:00 AM, additional ones in the afternoon. From there, you need to submit an application to walk on the disputed island. It isn’t always possible to dock with turbulent waters, but there are also boats that just pull up for photo ops. Come to think of it, Korea probably gets quite a bit of Won out of tourism to Dokdo.

More Information

Wikipedia on the Liancourt Rocks

The Territorial Dispute Over Dokdo

Dokdo, Korean Island: Proofs & Facts

Dokdo Takeshima Island

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