How patriotic are South Koreans

Visiting the island as a patriotic duty

Dokdo Island is at the center of the dispute between Japan and South Korea. The rocks are a popular travel destination for South Koreans - also because the state is investing heavily in the tourist destination.

Choi Gi Yong is disappointed. The teacher sits with his wife and five friends on a plastic stool in Ulleung harbor, eats raw squid and washes his frustration with soju, the local schnapps. Because the hour-long bus trip and the equally long ferry crossing were in vain. The destination of Choi and his group was not the island of Ulleungdo but a few rocks 87 kilometers away. "We came for Dokdo," says Choi firmly. But nothing came of the visit, the swell was so high that the tourist ships could not dock there. And the next day the group has to go back to the mainland.

Reminiscent of colonial times

The rocky archipelago that Choi raves about is a stumbling block between Japan and South Korea. Japan calls the islands Takeshima and claims them for itself. The Korean side sees this claim as an attack on its own territorial integrity and is reminded of Japanese imperialism, which made Korea a colony in 1910. Shortly before, in 1905, Japan had integrated the islands into its territory because it considered them Terra nullius. "Dokdo was the first Korean area to fall victim to Japanese aggression," says a video from the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Choi and his companions are not nationalistic outsiders. This evening, hundreds of visitors, mostly in colored outdoor clothes, many of them older, sit along the market stalls in Ulleung harbor. Last year, more than 255,000 tourists visited Dokdo, almost all of them Koreans. The conservative newspaper “Chosun Ilbo” admits that Dokdo is not particularly welcoming, but the islands “arouse patriotic feelings in many Koreans who see a visit as their duty to counter the flimsy, colonial claims of Japan”.

Tourists instead of squids

The flow of tourists has been growing for years, and a total of 415,000 made it to Ulleungdo in 2013. Up to four fifths of them came because of Dokdo, says Vice Mayor Kang Cheol Su. But like Mr. Choi and his friends, many do not make it to the patriotically significant rocks. This year's season got off to a good start, but with the sinking of the «Sewol» ferry in April, the number of visitors fell by more than half, says Kang. Since then, many have considered traveling by ferry to be dangerous.

Ulleungdo relies on patriotic tourism as it makes up around two thirds of the local economy. Although the island is also known for fresh squid, only about 600 families still make a living from fishing. Just as many are still working in agriculture on the steep slopes of the extinct volcano. Overall, the population has decreased by two thirds in the last thirty years. Now it is constant at around 10,000 people. Thanks to the income opportunities in tourism, even young people have occasionally moved in, the town hall proudly says.

Infrastructure at the limit

Tourism also pushes the small island to its limits: the season focuses on the summer months, when up to 5000 tourists arrive every day. The most popular package lasts three days with two overnight stays - so there are one and a half times as many tourists on Ulleungdo as residents at peak times. The infrastructure, such as the wastewater disposal, can sometimes no longer keep pace. Around the village of Ulleung, where most of the accommodation is located, there is no space for a sewage treatment plant on the steep terrain.

In winter, when storms are raging, there are often no ferries for days. Ulleungdo is cut off 100 days a year from the mainland, says the deputy mayor: "If someone needs medical care that is beyond the capabilities of our small clinic, then we have a problem." An airfield is supposed to help. For 490 billion won, almost half a billion Swiss francs, a mountain flank is to be removed by 2020 and a runway for aircraft with up to 50 passengers will be built with the material.

Such infrastructure projects serve to increase the income of the residents on remote islands and thus contribute to their well-being, writes the responsible Ministry for Land, Infrastructure and Transport in Seoul on request. If the plan is implemented, the capital can be reached in around an hour's flight time. The project is fully paid for by the central government.

Museums and international PR

The airport will also serve tourism. State and private institutions at various levels are already telling schoolchildren that a real Korean has to be proud of Dokdo. And that it is good form to visit these islands once. There is a state-of-the-art Dokdo Museum in Seoul, through which even kindergarten children are channeled. Everywhere in the country you can find posters saying “Dokdo is Korean territory”.

In North Gyongsang Province, of which Dokdo is a part, an NGO funded by the provincial government visits all primary and middle schools and gives lectures on Dokdo. "Our population needs to be informed about Dokdo because Japan claims the islands," explains Lee Min Jae, a young employee. One will try to extend the program to the whole country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is involved internationally. For the current year it has budgeted a good 4 million Swiss francs to explain to the world that Dokdo is Korean.

«Promotion» through Japan

However, the best advertisement for tourism to Dokdo comes from Japan. "If Japan did not claim the islands for itself, most Koreans would hardly be interested in Dokdo," admits Lee Seung Jin frankly. Lee is the director of the Dokdo Museum on Ulleungdo, which was built thanks to a generous donation from the Samsung concern.

Although Tokyo has insisted on its claim to Takeshima since the 1950s, it has been expressing this increasingly since the mid-1990s. It was particularly shocking in Korea that in 2005 the Shimane Prefecture, to which the islands belong according to Japanese reading, initiated a “Takeshima Day”. On this day, February 22nd, 1905, imperial Japan incorporated the islands - the fact that this date is a commemorative day in Japan is interpreted by the Korean side to mean that modern Japan is still indulging in colonial desires.

Emotions boil up around August 15th. On the day Japan surrendered in 1945, in Korea it is celebrated as the day of liberation from the Japanese yoke. Two years ago, then-South Korean President Lee Myung Bak visited Dokdo shortly before that date, thereby ensuring that Japanese-Korean relations sank to a low point.

Dancing policemen

Even if raw materials such as methane hydrate are suspected in the area of ​​Dokdo, the value of the islands is primarily symbolic. A single elderly couple lives there, plus five men who run the lighthouse and a guest house where researchers stay overnight, for example. The rocky islands are guarded by 40 men from the national police. Most of the time, however, these stand at attention for the visitors, take souvenir photos or advertise Dokdo, for example by appearing in a video to the beats of the mega-hit Gangnam-Style.

Visitors who have come from far away are usually only allowed to spend 20 minutes on the Dokdo concrete pier before returning to Ulleungdo. If wind and weather do not cooperate, tourists are left disappointed on Ulleungdo. That's not even bad for the residents of the islands. Because if you didn't make it to Dokdo, you will probably come back. Mr. Choi says between two glasses of soju: "We'll definitely try it another time." His traveling companions agree and raise their glasses.

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