Foreigners embrace meaning of Dokdo

DOKDO —The field trip to Korea’s easternmost islets, Dokdo, can be challenging, to say the least.

A trip starting in Seoul means traveling down to the port city of Donghae, Gangwon Province, taking a ferry to Ulleung Island in North Gyeongsang Province and then another two and half hours on a boat to Dokdo, also in the province. Foreign students on the journey were half excited and half worried, following the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol.

After the first night in Donghae, and another in Ulleung Island, it was only on the last day of the three-day that the fog shrouding Ulleung Island cleared up, opening the waterway to Dokdo, Friday.

Some 18 foreign students from China, Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia, Spain, Bulgaria and Uganda, got on a boat that shuttles between Ulleung Island and Dokdo. After two and a half hours on the rolling waters, the pristine rocky islets, surrounded by emerald water and seagulls that live on the islets, came into sight.

“It’s really beautiful, the seagulls and the rocky islets. Because of the gusty wind, I feel like my body will be carried away. It could be much better, however, if I could climb to the top of the islets,” said Mandakh Turshinjargal, 26, from Mongolia, who studies education at Sangmyung University in Seoul.

The students stayed on Dokdo, guarded by police officers, for about 30 minutes before getting back on board the boat. Dokdo has two main islets, eastern and western, and other smaller outcrops.

“Prior to the trip, I knew the Dokdo song and wild flowers blooming in the rock crevice. But, when I see people living on the Ulleung Island, close to Dokdo, I had the feeling that by living there they are remaining loyal to their country. Some kind of patriotic spirit,” she added.

Chiou Yu-jin, 29, from Taiwan, who came with her Chinese classmate from Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute in Seoul says that the Dokdo trip lured her most to the program.

“Without the trip, I wouldn’t be part of it. I have a very keen interest on what happens to Dokdo and how people keep it as their territory,” she said.

“We have the Diaoyu islands, on which Taiwan and Japan both claim sovereignty. Since warships from both countries patrol the area so that no one can land on them. I wanted to see if people actually inhabit Dokdo and if they do, whether they are natives for generations or a few politically motivated people,” she said.

The state-run Northeast Asian History Foundation (NAHF) in Seoul provided foreign students with a rare opportunity to visit Dokdo, to which Japan also claims its sovereignty.

The visit is part of a 15-week NAHF academic program, running through June 25, to promote foreigners’ understanding of the history of Northeast Asia. Starting with 22 students last year, the free program saw some 32 students from 11 countries enrolled this year.

“This time, we are happy to see many enthusiastic students. A Uganda student, for instance, commutes from Cheonan, in South Chungcheong Province, where he lives, every Wednesday just to take this class at the NAHF,” said Chung Young-mi, director of the Dokdo Museum in Seoul, who led the students during the trip.

She said that even though many Koreans take pictures under the banner that says “Dokdo is our land,” in protest of repeated and escalating Japanese territorial claims, what is needed more is to raise awareness among expats about the islets.

During the decades-long territorial dispute between Seoul and Tokyo over Dokdo, public attention has continued to increase. According to the North Gyeongsang provincial government, which oversees Dokdo, over 220,000 tourists took boats to the islets last year alone.

“We plan to enlarge the class size to about 100 in the coming years. This year we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Yonsei University Korean Language Institute, which provides optional Korean history courses for advanced students. It recommended some 10 foreign students and some registered for this academic program at the earliest opportunity,” Chung said.

On the first day of the excursion, students also stopped by a sheep ranch in Daegwallyeong, Gangwon Province, before heading for a local resort in Donghae. During the foreign students’ night event held that day, students freely exchanged what impressed them the most in Korean history and culture.

Nan Jinghui, 28, a third-generation “joseonjok” or ethnic Koreans who emigrated to China, said that history is an ongoing issue for her and her neighbors.

“When developers have dug the ground to erect buildings, poison gas containers used to kill Chinese and Koreans by Japanese soldiers have been being discovered,” she said.

Teresa Garcia, a Spanish student studying Korean studies in the U.K., said that she came to be part of the program to learn about why Dokdo is so important to Koreans, while a Japanese male student said he participated because he wants to become a history teacher in Japan. By Park Jin-hai The korea times

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