The greening of Dokdo

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The greening of Dokdo

ULLEUNG, Gangwon

Of all the lands that make up Korea, the island of Dokdo is the first to see the sun every day. The island is almost uninhabited, and lies in the East Sea, about 200 kilometers east of the Korean Peninsula. It would be no more than a dot on a map if not for the dispute with Japan over which country it belongs to. The name of the island is engraved in the Korean mind, due to rallies by patriotic types who fervently insist that it is part of Korea. There is even a song dedicated to the island in which each verse ends with: "Dokdo belongs to us!"

However superficial it is, that love for Dokdo is great. Ask anyone on the street and he will tell you passionately that Dokdo is Korea's, even though he probably doesn't even know where it is.

About 90 kilometers west of Dokdo is the closest inhabited island, Ulleungdo, where the fight for Dokdo is the strongest. One of the residents of Ulleungdo who puts his love for Dokdo into action is Lee Ye-gyun, 54. In 1974, Mr. Lee got together with members of a hiking club he was in, and organized tree-planting jaunts to Dokdo. "At the time, though there were diplomatic tensions with Japan, anyone could visit the island," he says. "We decided to leave politics to the government and use a simple way to show our support for the island."

Planting trees may sound easy, but each member of Mr. Lee's arboreal group had to carry a load of seedlings and fertilizer weighing about 40 kilograms up Dokdo's steep, craggy slopes to get to the planting areas. Their mission came abruptly to a halt in 1979 when Japan complained about it, and Korea's Foreign Ministry told Mr. Lee and the other patriots to curb their activities. In 1986, after the Seoul Asian Games, Japan's voice, claiming its rights to the island, became even stronger. Japan started to send out patrol boats as a symbolic show of force. But the bold moves by Japan only compelled Mr. Lee and his compatriots to go back to the island to continue their acts of patriotism. In May of 1988, Mr. Lee got together with 12 other Ulleungo residents to form a "Keep Dokdo Green" organization. But before the group became active, the government again applied the brakes; it stepped in and forbade the organization from engaging in any activities on the island. The logic behind this move was simple: The government was concerned about the success of the 1988 Olympic games.

"We only wanted to plant some trees," Mr. Lee says. "If the government couldn't help us plant those trees it should at least not have stopped us."

Only after Mr. Lee had visited government officials for several times was he able to go back to Dokdo the following year. In April 1999 Mr. Lee and 50 other Ulleungdo residents boated east and landed on the island with 1,780 seedlings and 200 bags of fertilizer. There they spent six days planting trees. But the following fall, when they went back to check on the health of the new trees, they saw that their efforts had been in vain. The trees were unable to adapt to the sea winds, and died. Many had simply dried out.

For the next two years Mr. Lee and his companions shuttled back and forth between Dokdo and Ulleungdo to take care of surviving trees. On each trip they searched for suitable places to plant new trees. By March 1992, the tree-planting club had grown to 102 people. Mr. Lee learned how to have better luck with planting trees: He collected seedlings of trees that grew near Ulleungdo's coast. Through 1996, he and his group planted 1,000 more trees, most of which survived.

In 1999, the government declared Dokdo a national monument, which essentially made it off-limits to visitors. Nowadays, Mr. Lee goes to Dokdo once or twice a year. Usually he sails around the coastline of the island and cleans up the water.

Mr. Lee says the government is too afraid of sparking diplomatic clashes with Japan, and says the change in Dokdo's status was made with his activities in mind.

"Last year in June, when I had the chance to visit the island, I counted about 800 trees that we planted that were fully grown," he says. "If I could just work like before on the island, Dokdo would become truly green."

While unable to set foot on the island these days, Mr. Lee has been busily creating awareness of another issue related to Dokdo: the limit lines in the area that divide fishing areas between Japan's and Korea's fishermen. Together with an organization in Seoul called "Searching for Dokdo's History," Mr. Lee organizes rallies that publicize what he says is the unfairness of the fishing agreement Japan and Korea began in 1999.

According to the treaty, a dividing line was drawn through Ulleungdo, which puts Dokdo in a joint fishing zone. Mr. Lee argues that the line should have passed through Dokdo, which would have kept the island in Korea's zone. "The fundamental question is how to take care of something that is rightly our own," he says. But our government is acting like we are in possession of something that is not ours."

Back on Ulleungdo, Mr. Lee is an influential figure. His ancestors have been there for four generations. He has been the head of his Dodong district for 15 years, and is known for his love of nature. Recently he prevented a group of developers from building a golf course on the island.

Still, his heart constantly gazes east to Dokdo.

by Lee Man-hoon

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