Program offers patriotic look at Dokdo’s history

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Program offers patriotic look at Dokdo’s history


Members from the Fourth Northeast Asian History Academy for Foreigners, a history program conducted by the state-run Northeast Asian History Foundation, gather on deck, with Dokdo in the background. By Park Sang-moon

Growing up in Australia, Lee Yow-min concedes she knew very little about Dokdo, the disputed islets that Korea administers but which Japan claims.

Being ethnically Korean, Lee said it was natural for her to stick with Korea if she were to choose a side, though she couldn’t really fathom why such a “tiny” island, some 187,554 square meters (46 acres) in total, aroused so much controversy between the two Asian countries.

Only after enrolling in a history course run by a Korean government-backed organization did Lee, now here for a master’s degree in global development and entrepreneurship at Handong Global University, come to understand the decades-old dispute.

That is, she came to sympathize with Seoul’s perspective.

“Learning about Korea’s painful history surrounding Dokdo and the abundant natural resources in the adjacent seas,” Lee says, “I thought to myself, maybe that’s why that tiny island means so much to Koreans and, at the same time, why Japan is fighting so hard to claim its right over it.”

The 20-some PowerPoint slides she was shown last month in one class, which featured historical documents demonstrating how Korea has recognized Dokdo’s existence for centuries, is what solidified her faith that the island had forever belonged to her ancestors.

In fending off Japan’s unremitting efforts on its territorial claim, the Korean government in 2008 established the Northeast Asian History Foundation in Seodaemun District, central Seoul, to fund local scholars to respond to the issues it considers historical distortion.

When it comes to its neighbor, Dokdo and “comfort women” - the euphemistic term used to describe the women and girls, mostly Korean, who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II - are two of the most pressing issues Seoul seeks to resolve.

To heighten its position that the islets belong to Korea, the foundation, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Education, opened a Dokdo museum in 2012 near its office and has since displayed ancient maps and documents that support its stance.

Diplomats from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul “silently” dropped by at least once without prior notification, a staff member recently said, adding that she was tipped off by the embassy cars parked outside the building.

In 2013, the foundation went on to run the Northeast Asian History Academy for Foreigners, a 15-week program that teaches participants about the history shared among Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing, for two hours every Wednesday.

The program is held twice annually, once in spring and fall, for approximately 50 international students who score a level 4 or higher on the Test of Proficiency in Korean (Topik).

But in explaining the founding principles of the program - which is free and includes field trips to historic sites - Chung Young-mi, the director of the Dokdo Museum Seoul and a research fellow at the foundation, underscored that the classes on Dokdo take up at least two weeks on the curriculum.

“The main reason why this program was established in the first place is because we wanted foreigners here to experience Dokdo,” said Chung, adding that students from as many as 26 countries, including Japan, participate.

“At a time when Dokdo has become some sort of a bone of contention, it really doesn’t matter what Japan [thinks or claims about the island],” she said, adding that she finds it difficult - if not impossible - to convince Japan to concede that the islets belong to Korea.

“It’s crucial what the third party thinks, so we came up with the idea to convene foreigners in Korea to firmly tell them that Dokdo is ours, and why that’s so.”

To make sure students don’t have any doubts, taking them on a two-night, three-day trip to Dokdo, with stops along the way in Donghae, Gangwon, and Ulleung Island, is “the best” way to win the upper hand against Japan, Chung said.

“When it comes to history education, nothing beats looking [at the subject] with a naked eye,” she continued. “Seeing that Dokdo is safely guarded by our national police, there’s really no better way.”

In a country where the mental wounds inflicted by Japanese colonial rule remain raw, the territorial dispute over Dokdo runs much deeper than what can be seen. Korea links Dokdo with a barrage of other issues dating back to the early 20th century, when women were forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers and prisoners of war were subjected to brutal medical experiments.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has drawn criticism from foreign governments and scholars worldwide for his tendencies toward historical revisionism. His administration has consistently whitewashed the country’s wartime aggressions, thereby wreaking havoc on already tense relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

But the Japanese government took the territorial dispute one step further last month when, for the first time, it approved all 18 middle school textbooks across three subjects that exerted its claim over Dokdo, which Tokyo calls Takeshima. The move prompted heavy backlash from Seoul.

A few local celebrities have also found themselves blacklisted by Japanese authorities for publicly endorsing Korea’s right over Dokdo, namely veteran singer Lee Seung-chul, who was denied entry into Japan in November.

At the time, Japanese government officials refused to provide a clear reason for the rejection, leading Lee as well as Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to state that they assume it was a retaliatory measure against his performance on the island last August.

Both countries go centuries back in outlining reasons to their claims over Dokdo, with Japan chiefly relying on an instance in 1905 when it incorporated the island as a part of its territory during the war with Russia.

Seoul at that time was deprived of the chance to lodge a diplomatic complaint because Japan coerced the country to sign a treaty that made it a protectorate of Tokyo, stripping it of such rights.

Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, leading Koreans today to state that the islets were the first national territory to fall victim to Japan’s aggressions.

Declaring Dokdo a part of its territory in 1905, the Japanese Cabinet adopted a resolution justifying its claim, which read that the islets were “uninhabitable land with no evidence that can be recognizable as having been occupied by another country.”

That assertion, however, contrasts an 1877 directive issued by the Daijoukan, translated as the Grand Council of State, Japan’s highest decision-making body during the Meiji period (1868-1912).

“It was confirmed through negotiations between the old government [Edo Shogunate] and the Joseon government that the two islands [Dokdo and Ulleung Island] do not belong to our country [Japan],” according to translations provided by Korea’s Foreign Ministry.

Joseon (1392-1910) was the predecessor to modern-day Korea.

In negotiations to redefine Japanese territory after the World War II, officials agreed upon the Cairo Declaration in 1943, which stated that “Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed.”

A 1946 Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers instruction note was later laid down, specifically documenting that full sovereignty of the “Utsuryo [Ulleungdo], Liancourt Rocks [Dokdo] and Quelpart [Jeju Island]” were excluded from the governmental and administrative jurisdiction of Japan.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty, however, signed in 1951, mostly by Japan and the Allied powers, failed to settle ownership over Dokdo, falling short of mentioning other islands previously discussed.

The reasons for the omission remains unclear even now, though scholars here point out that Dokdo had been given to Korea in the first several drafts, only to be revised later when Japanese authorities lobbied to have that part stricken from the record.

Since Korea established a small police detachment on Dokdo in 1954, Tokyo has urged Seoul to file the case with the International Court of Justice to settle the dispute once and for all - a demand Seoul has persistently declined, claiming the island belongs to Korea “historically, geographically and under international law.”

The dispute has continued to exacerbate diplomatic relations between Seoul and Tokyo since, setting off firestorms when either government makes any sort of reference to the islets.

To solidify Seoul’s stance on Dokdo, the Northeast Asian History Foundation last month once again organized a field trip to the islets, allowing the fourth group in the Northeast Asian History Academy for Foreigners to catch a glimpse of the volcanic rocks, formed millions of years ago.

They were just part of the group of some hundreds of Koreans, mostly middle-aged tourists in colorful alpine clothing, hoping that the weather would allow them to set foot on the nearly uninhabitable islets.

Without a seawall, more than half of the tourists who sail to the cluster of islets fail to land and are forced to be satisfied simply circling the area around it. Even in impeccable weather, visitors who receive permission to set foot on Dokdo are only allowed 20 minutes near the dock and must undergo heavy inspection by armed police officers, who guard against Japanese provocation.

The group, however, was out of luck on April 19, when just as the cruise ship was sailing a few hundred meters away from Dokdo, the captain made an announcement that the tide was too high for the vessel to dock - a declaration that prompted loud grunts and heavy sighs from those in the crowd.

Still, the passengers, many carrying national flags in their hands, swarmed out to the deck and eagerly snapped shots of the islets, scrambling for a better spot to photograph the landscape.

For a while, nothing but the waves splashing against the ship and the cries of hungry seagulls could be heard.

The 33 foreigners from the academy looked at the two main islets from afar, finally able to observe in person what they had learned just a week ago in Seoul.

Explaining that it was his second trip to Dokdo, Ravi Kumarranjan, an Indian national studying Korean language and literature at Kyung Hee University in Dongdaemun District, central Seoul, recalled he had been “dumbfounded” the first time he visited Dokdo.

“I heard about the territorial dispute between Korea and Japan ahead of my initial trip, so I was really looking forward to it,” the 29-year-old said. “But then, I successfully landed on the island only to find nothing but rocks and police officers. I couldn’t even see trees.

“After learning from my Korean and international friends about the significance of Dokdo later on - how there’s bountiful natural resources around the area - I understood why the island holds such great meaning.”

Kumarranjan remembered previously seeing Korean police officers on the island.

“Foreigners [from a third country] really can’t argue whether Dokdo belongs to Korea or Japan, but then you see people representing Korean authority on it and reach a conclusion that it’s obviously their territory,” he said.

Battumur Batbayar, 27, a Mongolian studying international trade at Sogang University’s Graduate School of International Studies, added that it was overwhelming to be surrounded by Koreans with so much national pride.

“The people sitting next to me were singing Dokdo songs, and even little kids were chanting ‘Dokdo is ours,’” he said. “It was a chance to really feel how people here are so passionate about the island, and I admired that in every way.”

Among the five Chinese participants from the academy who joined in on the trip, Pan Yanmei from the Academy of Korean Studies in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, said she “envies” Korea for being able to explain its stance on Dokdo to such a wide range of people.

The 42-year-old continued that she wished China would also implement such a tactic in its battle with Japan over an island controlled by Tokyo in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Daioyu by Beijing.

“Nobody but its own people believes Dokdo belongs to Japan,” Pan said, laughing.

“People from, say Europe or the Middle East, don’t know about the dispute or the island’s historical background,” she said, adding that most international visitors escorted to the rocks by domestic authorities were tempted to side with Korea.

According to Chung, over the course of the program, a few Japanese students “silently left the classroom” in defiance of the lecturer’s argument that Dokdo is Korean territory. Two Japanese participants did so last month when she took the rostrum.

All six Japanese nationals on the excursion to Dokdo declined to be interviewed for this article, except one who was of Korean descent.

Upon learning that reporters from the Korea JoongAng Daily and a local broadcaster would accompany the group, some Japanese tourists who initially signed up for the journey withdrew, possibly fearing they would show up in Japanese media and face criticism upon returning home.

Requesting that his full name not be used, the 19-year-old, who is currently learning Korean at a local university, said the history here was “different” from what he learned back in his own country.

“People in Japan aren’t really interested in the territorial dispute surrounding Dokdo,” he said. And school textbooks there, he added, don’t specify the reasons for the Japanese government’s claim.

“Then, joining this program, I’m taught all about the island,” he said, implying that he had been left with no other choice but to conclude the islets were Korean territory, particularly with it being the only version of history he’d ever heard.

To boost its learning program for foreigners to the next level, the Northeast Asian History Foundation seeks to target foreign diplomats in Seoul next, and Chung added that the special program has already been fully planned out in terms of its curriculum.

“We get calls from embassies asking about educational programs,” she said, “but there haven’t been enough to actually put it on roll, so now we’re basically focusing on promotion.

“Embassies try to restrain themselves from getting involved in political matters.”


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