Patriotism, poetry, seasickness: A long trip to Dokdo (almost)Spending 18 hours on a rolling, rocking boat doesn’t sound like the ideal weekend getaway. But if the destination is Dokdo, it’s a different story.
To get to the disputed islets in the East Sea, Koreans are more than willing to endure the rite of passage ― a long, winding and queasy rollercoaster boat ride, combined with a 12-hour round-trip bus ride from Seoul. At least, that was the case for more than 140 passengers on the Sambong ferry to Dokdo recently.
Since the dispute over these rocky outcroppings, claimed by both Korea and Japan, heated up in recent weeks, Koreans have been flocking to visit them.
Dae-A Travel Agency, the only agency arranging transportation to the island, has had a surge of reservations since the Korean government began allowing citizens to land on the islands late last month. Every weekend trip in April is booked, according to the agency. Even the hefty cost of 350,000 won ($345) is apparently not a barrier.
Previously, tourists were banned from the islands, though making a trip around Dokdo on a designated tourist boat was possible. The ban was ostensibly to preserve the islets, which have been designated a “natural monument.”
Even since lifting the ban, the government has limited the number of people allowed on the islands at one time to 100.
This trip began with a bus departing from central Seoul at 10 p.m. April 2. It arrived at Pohang, North Gyeongsang province, around 4 a.m. the next day.
To get to Dokdo, one can either leave from Mukho port in Gangwon province or from Pohang. From Pohang, which is farther from Seoul but more accessible by highway, a ferry called the Sunflower makes a round trip every day to Ulleung island, the gateway to Dokdo.
Among the passengers on the boat this particular Sunday morning was Shin Mi-gyun, who was willing to pay the costly fare, which is roughly the price of a round-trip airline ticket to nearby cities in neighboring countries.
Ms. Shin said, “Dokdo is not a place that you can go to only if you can afford the trip. As a caring Korean citizen, this was more of a duty visit for me, and I was more than willing to pay.”
She made the trip as a member of the Poets’ Association, 106 of whose members were on the boat that day for an event they dubbed the “Love Dokdo Poem Recital and Art Festival.” The association’s head, Kim Jong-hae, explained the reason for the trip by saying, “During colonial rule, the Japanese forced Koreans to change their names to Japanese ones. Now they’re trying to do the same misdeed with Dokdo, which cannot be endured anymore.”
He added, “[The situation] was intriguing enough for us to stand up and do something. Not that we hate Japan, but we cannot remain idle at their darkest design of greed.”
Among the group was Goh Eun, a renowned man of letters, who was among the 12 to recite poems about the island.
Also on the ferry were 33 high school students wearing bright yellow sashes saying “Dokdo Belongs to Korea,” with “Iri High School” on the back. Yang Jeong-hun, a science teacher leading the group, said with a sense of pride, “We chose 33 students, commemorating the 33 independent activists who made a declaration against colonial rule in 1919.”
Upon reaching the island, the group was scheduled to form a “committee of high school students to stop Japan and keep Dokdo.”
In one corner of the boat stood one of the students, learning the lyrics of the pop song “Dokdo Is Ours” by heart. The student abandoned that effort, however, as the trip soon turned into a roller coaster ride.
A necessity for the trip is not just patriotism but medication against seasickness. The passengers were barely able to walk because of the rough sea, and the captain made an announcement urging everyone to remain seated. Before long, the passengers ― men and women, young and old ― began to lie down in the aisles, which allegedly helped to ease their seasickness. Some passengers staggered into the cabin, running to the toilets while covering their mouths.
Despite the discomfort, the passengers were patient for the most part, since the boat ride was supposed to last no more than two and a half hours.
At that point, however, the captain again made an announcement. “Because of the rough sea, I’m sorry to let you know that the ferry cannot anchor at the pier,” he said, prompting passengers to get up and shout curses.
The boat’s officers made the rounds, telling passengers that the waves were big enough to almost reach the upper deck. So, after another rocky two and a half hour trip, the ferry returned to Pohang.
The high school students were in an uproar, saying they would somehow try again the next day.
In the middle of the crowd was Harry Charles Freeman, a Canadian English teacher based in Seoul. Mr. Freeman, who moved to Seoul after living in Japan, had seen a Dokdo-related rally of highly agitated people outside his hagwon that was so noisy he could not continue his class, and he decided to check out the island for himself. Going down the gangway, Mr. Freeman said, “Well, I guess Dokdo is Korean. Koreans care more about the island than the Japanese, I think.”
Neither Mr. Freeman nor the high school students appeared again on the ferry the following day, last Monday, when the sea was much calmer. Behind banners reading “No more silence against the injustice” and “Down with the Japanese dark design of imperialism,” the boat took off, making a long-awaited landing at Ulleung.
At the pier, the boat to Dokdo was waiting, anchored right next to the Sunflower ferry. On the other side of the pier stood a group of activists from the Democratic Labor Party, asking the Korean government to take decisive measures, such as summoning the Japanese ambassador to Korea. The activists were standing next to a granite sculpture of squid, the symbol of Ulleung Island, a fine reminder that the passengers were finally on the island, taking a step closer to their destination.
The passengers soon boarded the Sambong boat to Dokdo, which started another rocky journey of well over three hours on a broad expanse of deep blue water. The boat passed another tiny island called Jukdo, whose Chinese characters happen to be the same as those for “Takeshima,” the name by which the Japanese refer to Dokdo. Dokdo means “independence island” in Chinese characters; the name was given by King Gojong of the late Joseon era.
Finally, two small dots appeared on the horizon. The sign of reaching the destination was not a Korean flag but a flock of seagulls and passengers’ shouts of joy. That joy evaporated, however, when the captain announced that the sea was too rough to allow the boat to land on Dokdo. But the disappointed passengers were consoled by the news that weather conditions permitted people to land on the island only about a quarter of the time.
On board the boat, facing the island. the poets began to recite their works, such as “Break the rock on Dokdo and Korean blood will flow out” and “Dokdo is no longer a mere island.” The recital continued while a navy ship escorted the Sambong.
The captain, meanwhile, made the trip around Dokdo, which consists of two islets called the East and West islands. The captain also gave a brief introduction to Dokdo, such as the names of the rocks on the island, like “independence gate.” It did not take long for the boat to circle the island and begin its trip back to Ulleung Island.
The journey finally ended, as the passengers headed back to Seoul on Wednesday at 2 a.m. No one spoke about visiting the island again, but they returned home with a tired but satisfied look on their faces.
by Chun Su-jin