A Day-trip to Dokdo (...Almost)
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
It began with a Facebook post. The group was meant to share interesting opportunities for foreigners living in Korea, be they students, workers, tourists, or spouses of Korean citizens. This post caught my eye because of a single word: free. All graduate students know the pull that word has over you, especially those of us who have yet to find a job that satisfies the restrictions of the various agencies that hold power over our visas and course credits.
The post explained that the Dokdo Foundation was offering free tours of the islands of Ulleung-do and Dokdo for select international students enrolled at Korean universities. Intrigued, I clicked the link and was greeted with a Google Form. After filling in my details and submitting proof that I am in fact a student, I sent the form off and spent the rest of my evening trying to find out more information about the organization. I spent a couple hours watching YouTube videos about Dokdo, reading about the history of the territorial dispute with Japan, and looking at pictures of the island. Despite all the time I have spent in Korea, I did not know much about the “Dokdo thing”, as it is sometimes referred to. What I read interested me enough that, despite my best efforts, my hopes slowly started to rise. I went from thinking that it would be a fun chance to get away for a few days, to desperately wanting to be accepted and looking into the cost of going on my own in case I was rejected.
The day after I applied, I was suddenly added to a Kakao group chat full of strangers. I immediately moved to leave the chatroom and block whoever had added me, thinking that it was spam, but the first line of the first message stopped me cold: 10.06일 독도 탐방 (Oct. 6th Dokdo Visit). I was in! In two weeks, I would be going to Dokdo! I told everyone who would listen that I was going, made plans to attend my online classes away from home, found a pet sitter, and tried to explain to my family what exactly Dokdo is. The only problem was that even I still did not quite get it. I had a shallow understanding of the conflict gleaned from that single night of internet sleuthing, but when trying to regurgitate what I knew to other foreigners I usually left them more confused than they started. The question I always got in response was “But why does Korea care?”
The night before my departure I packed my bags, said goodbye to my dog, and headed to Seoul. There were 25 international students coming from across the country to attend, plus a handful of guides from the Dokdo Foundation. After a five-hour bus ride to Pohang, I woke up with a stiff neck and dry contacts, stepped off the bus and saw the ferry. The anticipation had been rising in me over the last two weeks, and I excitedly updated my family and friends on my travels. The guides called everyone to the front of the ferry terminal, and handed up bottles of water, anti-seasickness medication, buttons, t-shirts, and several books. These books are some of the most valuable I have found about Dokdo, especially one published by Gyeongsangbuk-do (North Gyeongsang Province) called “Everything You Need to Know About Dokdo”. Everything I had been wondering or confused about was explained in its pages: the Korean government’s position on Dokdo, the history and facts about Japan’s attempts at incorporating Dokdo, the Korean government’s use of Dokdo, and more.
An hour later we boarded the ferry, which was not as fun as I had imagined. I briefly lost consciousness on the floor of the women’s bathroom, suffering from the worst nausea I have ever experienced in my life. After we arrived at Ulleung-do I shakily returned to my seat, where one of the guides noticed my skin’s new greenish tinge and offered me his help. Once I disembarked from the ferry and felt the fresh air, smelled the ocean water, and took in the landscape of Ulleung-do, I felt immediately refreshed. The fact that the ground was not moving like an amusement park ride also helped.
After dropping our things off at the resort, we enjoyed our first meal on Ulleung-do. After eating we explored the Dodonghang (Dodong Port) area, walking along the water under jagged cliffs and tiptoeing onto the rocks that sat in the water just off the path. I was struck not only by the beauty of Ulleung-do, but also by its diversity. Ocean views? They have them. Mountains? Of course! Cliffs? Rocky beaches? Waterfalls? It was every part of the Canadian coastline combined into one small island paradise. The only flaw? Due to a mechanical failure, the entire island was sold out of one of the local delicacies I had been recommended the most: pumpkin makgeolli (unfiltered rice wine).
We gathered onto the bus and were taken up, up, up the mountains, eventually pulling over and continuing on foot. As we hiked, the sound of rushing water grew louder, and we passed larger and larger waterfalls. After about thirty minutes we reached the top of the 82 feet high Bongnae Falls and felt the cool breeze and mist on our faces as we stood on the bridge. The falls were beautiful, and after taking in the view and snapping some photos we enjoyed a leisurely hike back down to the bus.
Our next stop was an amazing viewpoint a short hike from the main road. 내수전 일출전망대 (Naesujeon Sunrise Lookout) allowed us to enjoy the variety of Ulleung-do’s natural beauty all at once, from the beach and ocean to the rolling hills and mountain cliffs. The tour leaders sent up a drone to get pictures of us from all angles, and we spent some time taking in the sights and sounds of the island. We moved from the viewpoint to our accommodations at the expansive and beautiful Daea Resort. It was time for the most important part of our trip: an explanation of the history of Ulleung-do and Dokdo, the territorial dispute with Japan, the significance of the islands, their value, and how they are currently being used and by whom. We were fairly exhausted at this point, but the presentation was very well done and answered all of our questions about Dokdo and Ulleung-do. After a dinner of famous Ulleung-do squid, we were sent to our rooms for a well-deserved night’s sleep.
The next morning started bright and early, and we were taken to Dodong Yaksu (Mineral Spring) Park to visit the Dokdo Observatory via the cable car. Everyone had been looking forward to this immensely, and we got to enjoy a new angle of the Ulleung-do landscape as we were carried to the top of the mountain. When the cable car reached the platform, we jumped out and made our way to the viewpoint, where we were hoping to see Dokdo. The weather was cold and the sky cloudy, so unfortunately, we were not able to see the tiny island, which lies less than 100 km away. However, we made a sport of posing for photos with the miniature of Dokdo, the sky dark and foreboding in the background. I walked up to the second viewpoint where skies were a bit clearer and FaceTimed my mother, who was back home on the east coast of Canada. I showed her what I was seeing, because none of the photos I was taking could capture the colours and depth of what I was seeing. My mother has visited Korea a view times, but never had a chance to see Ulleung-do or Dokdo. Despite my warnings about the ferry, she is now determined to visit both islands as soon as she can. Perhaps by that point the airport will be finished, and we can travel a bit more comfortably.
After taking in the views for as long as possible, we rode the cable car back down the mountain to visit the Dokdo Museum. We had learned a lot in the presentation from the night before, but the videos and historical artifacts in the museum were fascinating to see. The museum has a sleek, modern design reminiscent of a fine art museum, and I was surprised by how well curated it was. Guests can easily and smoothly make their way from floor to floor, learning about the history of Dokdo in chronological order.
As we exited the museum, our guides gathered us together to deliver some horrible news: due to inclement weather, all the ferries on and off the island were being canceled. Not only did we have to leave that afternoon, but we would not be able to visit Dokdo. My heart fell, and the other students and I looked at each other without saying anything. We had spent the past two days learning about Dokdo and had grown so excited to finally visit the island, and now it was impossible. At the same time, I felt ashamed of being so disappointed. After all, the trip was paid for by the Dokdo Foundation. I should be grateful for everything that I was given, instead of pouting about what I missed out on.
Determined to see as much of Ulleung-do as we could before catching one of the last ferries back to the mainland, our final stop after lunch was to see the 촛대암 / 촛바위 or Candlestick Rocks. At this point the weather could not have been more perfect, despite the storm to come, and we took our final photos to remember the trip by. As we were driven back to the ferry, the group’s mood was bittersweet. We knew that nothing could be done about the weather, but at the same time we could not help but feel disappointed. Thanks to a quick trip to the pharmacy the ferry ride back was much smoother than the ride over, despite the high winds and choppy water.
That evening we stayed at a resort near Uljin-gun, and the next day we visited a temple and Seongryugul Cave. As we were driven back to Seoul everyone swapped photos, and we talked about whether or not we would return to Ulleung-do this year to try and visit Dokdo before it became too cold.
After returning home I sent out a survey to all the students I traveled with to gather their opinions about the trip. Most respondents wrote that the best part of the trip was the viewpoint at the top of Ulleung-do, where they could see all the natural beauty of the island. Everyone agreed that the trip taught them a lot about Ulleung-do and Dokdo, and that if they had the opportunity, they would return on their own to finally set foot on Dokdo.
One of the biggest things that struck me about this trip was the massive expense. The transport, food and accommodation alone would have run into the millions of won, not to mention the entrance fees and the souvenirs we were given. Looking back on the trip a couple of weeks later I still cannot believe that I was given such an incredible opportunity, one that, as a student, I probably never could have afforded on my own.
But all of this money and effort spent begs the question of why. Why would the Dokdo Foundation give this opportunity to me, and to the other international students on the trip? The answer is complicated, but not as black and white as pure propaganda. Does the Dokdo Foundation want to get us “on their side” as it were, and to believe that Dokdo is part of Korea, not Japan? Of course, it would be ridiculous not to think this. However, I do not believe that was their only goal. Dokdo and Ulleung-do are small and separated from the mainland by a significant distance. They are not honeymoon destinations like Jeju, and most foreigners outside of Korea do not know the islands exist. This trip is a way to educate foreigners, however it is also a way to show appreciation for the people of Ulleung-do and Dokdo, the people who fight for the islands to remain a part of Korea, and those who lost their lives during the conflict. People may roll their eyes and say, “It’s just a rock”, but couldn’t the same be said for parts of their own country? Doesn’t every country have land that outsiders do not see as having value, or to be worth fighting for? But national pride is not about picking and choosing those areas and citizens that contribute the most to protect and praise, it is about standing together and supporting one another. Especially considering the long-lasting conflict between North and South Korea, the people of South Korea cannot stand being divided from their compatriots and territory again.
When examining it from that perspective, the purpose of this trip was not mere propaganda. This trip was intended to show national pride, to support the people of Ulleung-do and Dokdo, to educate foreigners studying in Korea about the value of the islands, and to dispel the myth that this conflict is not important. In the eyes of the Korean people, even if there was only one person living on Ulleung-do or Dokdo, it would still matter. It is not just a rock; it is part of Korea as much as Busan or Seoul is. That is something that the Dokdo Foundation, the Korean government, the Korean people, and perhaps I too, cannot be convinced otherwise.
***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of JTMS or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. Elizabeth Campbell is an intern at the North Korean Review and is currently a PhD candidate in Korean Studies at Korea University.