For Kim and His Wife, Dokdo Debate Hits Home
This is the ninth in a series of articles highlighting Dokdo’s history, environment, old maps, folklore, and the possibility of an international court decision on the East Sea islets and law of the sea. The series is the joint project of The Korea Times and the Korea Dokdo Research Center, which is affiliated with the Korea Maritime Institute. ― ED.
By Michael Ha
For Kim Sung-do and his wife, the sovereignty debate over Dokdo is not some vague, faraway foreign policy issue. Rather it's a discussion that really hits close to home. In fact, it's about a place they've been calling home for the past 40 years.
So what does Kim think about Japan's latest claim over Dokdo islets? ``I think these politicians in Japan are shameless."
Kim, 68, first arrived at the East Sea islets in the mid-1960s and since then he and his wife, Kim Shin-yeol, have made these isolated rocky islets their home.
Dokdo is not an easily accessible place from the Korean mainland. It's some 258 kilometers away from Pohang, in North Gyeongsang Province, and 87 kilometers away from the larger island of Ulleung-do.
But, Kim, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said, ``This is my home. I have spent more than half of my life here. I can't imagine my life without these islands. Dokdo is our land and this is our family's home."
Just a simple phone call placed to Kim's residence reveals how he feels about this territorial issue. When The Korea Times called Kim's residence on Dokdo's west islet this week, the waiting ring tone from his telephone was a well-known Korean song from 1982, appropriately titled, ``Dokdo is Our Land.''
When asked about the Japanese government's persistent claim, he said: ``Japanese politicians make these absurd claims every so often. Honestly, it makes me and my family uneasy. Japan should be making amends and apologizing for its past sins against our country. But instead, they are stubbornly insisting that Dokdo is theirs. It's quite a show they are putting on."
Kim, a fisherman who was born on Ulleung-do, said that for him, it's pretty obvious why Japan continues to make this territorial claim. ``Waters around here are great for fishermen. And also isn't there an underwater energy source called gas hydrate? I am sure these are what the Japanese government is going after. I think they need to stop their claim once and for all.
``I think these right-wing politicians in Japan are shameless. I dare them to come here and make their outrageous claim in front of me.''
Currently four Korean citizens, including the Kim family and a lighthouse maintenance worker, officially list Dokdo as their place of residence on their social security documents. There are also numerous visitors and travelers coming to Dokdo from the mainland, and since last April, government officials from the nearby Ulleung-do have been operating a new office on the islets to handle administrative functions for island visitors. But Kim and his wife are the only residents that live on the islets all year round.
``Living here on Dokdo gives me peace of mind," he said. ``My wife and I get up at five every morning, take our 1.5-ton fishing boat to nearby waters. And my wife also helps. She was a diver from Jeju Island and she also dives to catch shells, mussels and abalone.''
When asked to assess how Seoul has been handling the territorial issue, Kim said politicians need to ``talk less and do more.'' He minced no words when he said: ``When it comes to politicians, whether they are from the ruling party or the opposition party, they haven't done much that's substantial, except to raise their voices whenever the issue comes up in the news.''
``And there is the ongoing debate over the 1998 Korea-Japan fishing agreement, where Dokdo was regarded as a sort of buffering region between Korea and Japan. I don't think that was a good deal for us Koreans,'' Kim said.
``Our politicians shouldn't give the Japanese officials any leeway, any opportunities to make any more claim on Dokdo. I think politicians have to pay steady attention to this and they need to let other countries know that Dokdo is our Korean territory, through steady, long-term research and focus.''
``I think Korea should also develop and maintain a strong national military, to ensure that other countries don't even think about taking over our territories,'' Kim said.
He said he feels that Dokdo receives national attention only when Japan renews its territorial claim over the islets. Kim observed that there has been a surge in the number of Korean travelers visiting Dokdo in recent months, following Japan's announcement this summer that it will include a sovereignty claim over the islets in the country's teaching manuals for middle school students.
``I see a lot of visitors coming to Dokdo this summer. But I urge fellow Koreans to pay steady attention, pay attention to this land even when there are no controversies in the news. And a lot of people are coming here and are holding lots of events. That's all well, but these have to be done right, so that more Korean citizens can have a steady interest in this issue and on Dokdo.''