37 Disputed Rocks

Dokdo – on a map borrowed from http://www.dokdo-research.com

Dokdo has long been a source of tension between Japan and Korea. It lies roughly equidistant between both countries, and both sides claim it, although it is currently administered by Korea. Even the name is contested: Korea calls it Dokdo while Japan calls it Takeshima.

To make matters more complicated, the name of the body of water in which Dokdo is found is also open for debate.  In Korea it’s known as the East Sea but in Japan it’s called the Sea of Japan.  The waters around Dokdo/ Takeshima are rich fishing grounds, and scientists suspect that the seabed could be home to large natural gas deposits.

Koreans are passionate about their claim on Dokdo.  Dokdo was actually one of the first Korean words I learned.  Korean children learn about it (and the dispute) at an early age, and are constantly reminded of it.  I’ve seen “Dokdo belongs to Korea!” on T-shirts, mugs, flags, bumper stickers, subway and bus advertisements and graffiti.

This past August, the Korean Prime Minister visited Dokdo.  Japan immediately recalled their ambassador in Seoul, cancelled a scheduled meeting between finance ministers, and protested outside the Korean embassy in Tokyo.  All this served to confirm my suspicions that Japan feels just as strongly about their claim.

A trip to Dokdo was an optional part of our tour to Ulleungdo.  I jumped at the chance to visit the cause of all the excitement.  I have no opinion on who should own the island, I just wanted to see it.

When I mentioned to my students that I would be visiting Dokdo, every single one of them told me to wave my fist towards Japan and shout obscenities.  However, why I should do this, and what it might achieve (other than my probably arrest) was unclear…

Before going to Dokdo, we toured the fascinating Dokdo Museum.  The recently opened museum was a wealth of documentation both ancient and modern supporting Korea’s claim on Dokdo.  Presumably Japan has something along the same lines?

In the museum, I learned that Dokdo isn’t actually an island.  It is 2 large islands and 35 little rocky islets.

The museum was full of interesting and thought-provoking signs.  Sadly, not all of them were translated.  I was intrigued to note that the languages of choice at the museum were Korean, English and Japanese.  Did Japanese tourists really come to the Dokdo museum?

Of all the proofs, documentation and claims (which ranged from perfectly valid and reasonable to completely ludicrous), my favourite was the assertion that Dokdo belongs to Korea because it can be seen from Korean territory.  Does that mean the USA should in fact belong to Canada? 😀

There was also a 24-hour live feed from Dokdo.

Our tour guide had failed to mention that the journey to Dokdo from Ulleungdo would take roughly two and a half hours, each way.  He had also neglected to tell us that our stay on Dokdo itself would be extremely brief – between 20 to 30 minutes depending on the weather.  It didn’t really matter; I would have signed up for the tour anyway.  It just would have been lovely to have been able to mentally prepare myself for a five hour boat journey.

The boat was a relatively small, and there were perhaps 150 people on board.  Most of the passengers were Koreans, dressed in hiking gear suitable for scaling mountains, and carrying Korean flags of various sizes.  We settled in, and I promptly fell asleep, lulled by the soothing motion of the waves.

When I awoke about 20 minutes later, I learned two things: (1) I thankfully don’t appear to suffer from sea sickness, and (2) everybody else on the boat did.

Never having been out in the open sea before, I can’t say whether the water was rough, or if that is simply what the sea is like.  Either way, the trip went from lovely day out on a boat to Barf Central.

I like boats.  I like travelling by boat.  But never in my life have I ever been so happy to get off a boat.  When the boat docked at Dokdo, people ran for the door like the ship was sinking.  I gather we were lucky.  Most of the time, the water is too rough to attempt a landing so the boat simply circles Dokdo and heads back.  I think I would have thrown myself off the Boat of Barf and swam to shore had we not been able to land.

Dokdo was lovely.  It really is just a bunch of rocks in the middle of the sea, but they sure are pretty rocks.

The main island with a military installation on the top.

Korean tourists posing with a sign and one of the soldiers stationed on the island.

Our ship, and the other main island.

About 15 Korean soldiers are stationed on Dokdo at any given time.  There are also two permanent residents on Dokdo – a fisherman and his wife.  They have a lovely house but I would imagine it would be a lonely existence.

The only house on Dokdo.

There was a large cement wharf built out of one of islands so ships could dock.  Tourists were not allowed off of this wharf.

I’m not sure what this says but EVERY Korean tourist wanted their picture taken in front of it.  A lot of the older Koreans became emotional as they walked around taking pictures.  I even saw a few elderly women in tears.  It never ceases to amaze me how fiercely proud Koreans are of their country.

Me, celebrating the fact that I’m off the Barf Ship.

Some of the 35 little rocks that make up Dokdo.

After exactly 23 minutes, we were herded back onto the boat.  The sweet young soldiers waved us off, and as we pulled away from the dock they performed PSY’s Gangnam Style. It is impossible to get away from that song, even in the middle of the ocean.

During the all-too-brief time that we had been on Dokdo, the sea had become rougher.  It was a bit like being on a never-ending roller-coaster: the boat would rise up on a swell, and then crash down into the valley between the waves with a loud bang.  I was knocked clear off my feet a few times, and managed to skin both my knees and my elbows on the ship’s rugs.  (Can I just say that carpet burn is not nearly as fun as racy movies would have you believe?)

It was a VERY, VERY long trip back to Ullengdo.  I suspect that most of my shipmates will forever feel slightly nauseous whenever they catch sight of a picture of Dokdo.

I don’t regret going to Dokdo; it was beautiful.  My memories of Dokdo will forever be bathed in a lovely golden light.  I do wonder however how true my memories are.  Was Dokdo really spectacularly beautiful, or are my memories tinged by the fact that my 23 minutes on Dokdo were the only barf-free minutes of the trip?

Leaving Dokdo


About Carrie K

Teacher, writer, traveller. Slightly neurotic. Overly talkative. Loving life. You can also follow me on Twitter: kimchigirl72
This entry was posted in Japan, Korea, Life, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 37 Disputed Rocks

  1. Pat Dunphy says:

    This is terrific, Carrie. Thanks!

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