[Viewpoint] What to do at night on Dokdo

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[Viewpoint] What to do at night on Dokdo

I got a sudden desire to see Dokdo upon hearing news that Japanese middle school students would be instructed that the islets were theirs in classes starting next year. The Northeast Asian History Foundation, which also runs a research arm on Dokdo, organized a visit to the islets in the East Sea.

A ferry goes to the main island once a day, but the chance of reaching shore is just 40 percent due to strong waves in the area. Even after landing, ordinary citizens cannot move beyond the harbor because the island is a restricted area. But I was fortunate enough to join a group of government officials and penetrate the island further.

I cherished every step and appreciated such a rare moment. After 430 blessed steps, I reached a security tower at the top of a steep hill. The head of the Coast Guard contingent stationed on the island greeted us.

“This land will be ours even a million years later,” he said in a solemn voice. I felt my heart warm as I glanced over the clear markings that read “Korean territory” on every corner of the rocky island.

I wanted to spend the night on the island, but wasn’t allowed. Instead I stayed the night on a Coast Guard ship that patrols the islets. I heard a 3,000-ton Japanese patrol ship circle around the area earlier that morning. Japanese ships did patrols of the area 95 times last year and 26 times this year, acting as if Dokdo is their own to protect and watch over.

The Japanese patrol ships cannot approach within 12 miles of the Korean territory of the Dokdo islets, and our patrol ship circle within that radius. A tense showdown takes place two or three times a week. A loudspeaker on my ship suddenly broadcast an alarm, alerting us to unidentified ships approaching the area. The Coast Guard checks every vessel going through the islets and two unidentified boats were caught on radar.

The control room bustled with tension and alarm. The patrol ship rushed toward the vessels at full speed. One target turned out to be a radar error. The second was a Korean trawler. This is what happens every day around Dokdo.

The waters around the islets are more than 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) deep. It is an enigma as to how a rocky island shot up so high from such sea depths.

Without Dokdo, we lose our claim over East Sea waters. Because Dokdo is in the center of the East Sea, our sea territory starts from there. That is why Dokdo is so valuable to us. It is a seaborne treasure we cannot trade for anything.

We may never have recognized its true value had Japan not repeatedly claimed sovereignty over the island. We may have brushed it aside as one of 3,000 tiny islets surrounding our peninsula. We became aware of the value of our territory only after Japan claimed it as its own. We came to comprehend that we cannot neglect an inch of the land our ancestors valiantly fought to safeguard. We ironically have Japan to thank for this awakening.

My thoughts moved onto Japan. Bilateral ties have never been so close in economic and cultural terms. We will certainly have to link hands in security cooperation in the future. Why do we face a barrier every time we endeavor to progress further? In our minds, we know that working together would be mutually beneficial, but our hearts still bear scars from the past.

One of the biggest scars is of the violation of our territory that came as a result of Japan’s obsessive ambition for other territories. To make headway in bilateral relations, Japan must first yield all claims to our territories.

We cannot trust Japan to walk away from imperialistic ambitions unless it stops claiming sovereignty over Dokdo.

We genuinely felt compassion and offered help to Japan after the earthquake and tsunami that wreaked a kind of biblical havoc on its northeastern coast. It was a good chance to set bilateral relations in a new path. But Japan once again betrayed our sincerity.

Territories don’t preserve themselves. Their caretakers must take on that job. A country exists because people are willing to respond to the call of the nation. On the Coast Guard ship, four female police in their 20s work on equal footing with four male colleagues. Their devotion and patriotism are heartwarming.

At night, an extraordinary event took place on the ship. It was a feet-washing ceremony for combat police. The captain and other seniors kneeled to wash their feet. I, too, wanted to join them and wash the feet of 50 crewmen who watch over our borders day and night.

I asked if I could have the honor of washing the feet of the captain. He looked startled but took off his socks. I washed his feet to bless the young men and women who are guarding our land and waters on our behalf.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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