Friday, December 2, 2016

"Dokdo" (독도) - Love, loss and fishing on a disputed islet

The islets of Dokdo
The short story "Dokdo" appeared in Chosun Munhak in August 2006, right around the time the Dokdo/Takeshima tussle was heating up between South Korea and Japan. I remember this well, as I was living in Japan at the time. The Japanese prefecture that claims the islands of Takeshima as its jurisdiction proclaimed a "Takeshima Day" festival, and South Korean media blew up overnight. South Korea refers to the islands as "Dokdo" and has stationed a garrison there since 1954.

I picked this story because I wanted to see how the Dokdo controversy is depicted in North Korea, which also technically claims sovereignty over the islets (along with all South Korean territory).

This story is told in the story-within-a-story-within-a-story style; a historian, being interviewed in the present day, recounts a story he heard from an old fisherman he interviewed years ago, about events that occurred on Dokdo during the Japanese colonial period. The narrative thus jumps back and forth between the three different times and settings. The fisherman's speech is rendered in a thick Gyeongsang dialect.

The Plot

The historian Hyun Young Ryul had been commissioned by the Kumsung Youth Publishing Company to write an article directed at young people, explaining Dokdo's historical status as Korean territory. Looking over the papers he had been writing, Hyun suddenly felt he wasn't adequately expressing what he wanted to say.

Just then his thoughts are interrupted by a visit from a young publishing representative named Kim Jong Min who has come to interview him.
   "Far from abandoning their ambitions for seizing Dokdo, the Japanese reactionaries have grown more frantic. A clear example is their 2007 decision to use middle and high school texts claiming that Dokdo is Japanese. That's why our publisher has decided to print materials explaining the historical, geographic, and environmental components of the territorial issue so that youth to understand it more clearly. If time permits, I'd like you to discuss it in more detail." 
Hyun proceeds with a lengthy, rather pedantic description of the islands: their geographic features, ecology, mineral resources, distance from Ulleungdo and the mainland, etc. This section seems dedicated to simply educating readers who might not know what exactly Dokdo is.

North Korean stamps celebrating Dokdo
(Src: Chosun Ilbo)
As he speaks, Hyun is suddenly reminded of an interview he conducted many years ago with an old fisherman named Hwang Hak Chun who had been born and raised on Ulleungdo.
   "I had a dream last night that a historian from the capital would come to see me," the old man said, fiddling with his cigarette. "But I have no idea how this old illiterate could be of any help."
   "Please, just share anything about life on Ulleungdo. The lifestyle, the scenery, people and incidents you remember, things like that."
   "Ha, what nonsense. History is about great people who defeated foreign enemies, like General Eulji Mundeok and Admiral Ri Sun Shin, not some old guy who lived on some island."
   As he started to turn away, Hyun asked the old man if he had ever chanced to visit Dokdo.
   "Of course. Not just to visit, but I lived there in the summer," he said, lighting a cigarette. "Even when dirt fills my eyes, I'll never forget that place... You could say that I buried my youth, my love, and indeed my whole life on those islets. When I was young, I fell in love for the first time there."
When Hwang was growing up on Ulleungdo, there was a young girl in the house next door named Somnyon. A few years before national liberation, he and Somnyon both lost their fathers on the same day, when the two went sailing together and got swept out to sea. Hwang's household had a strong young worker and was able to make ends meet, but Somnyon's family was having trouble.

Hwang and Somnyon began working together to provide for their families. As they spent more and more time together out on the water, they developed feelings for each other. One flirtatious episode is recounted, involving skinny-dipping and a pair of fishing goggles. The pair eventually decided to marry. However, it was still a struggle to support their combined families. So Hwang decided to set out for Dokdo, where he had heard there was a wealth of abalone, sea urchin and sea cucumber in the surrounding waters.

"Dokdo is our land since ancient times!"
(Src: The Asia-Pacific Journal)

Hwang and Somnyon made many trips to Dokdo over that summer, staying overnight in a stone hut on a narrow gravel spit. It was on Dokdo, as the couple sat outside their hut counting the stars one evening, that Somnyon revealed she was pregnant.

As Somnyon's pregnancy progressed, Hwang tried to talk her out of exerting herself so much, but she insisted on accompanying him on one more fishing trip to Dokdo.

When they arrived, they found a fishing boat was already there. It was Hwang's buddy Myongduk. The fishermen called out happily to each other, and agreed to fish separate areas. Hwang deposited Somnyon at the campsite where she could prepare to cook their dinner. Hwang then spent the afternoon fishing alone, and was just about to turn toward the island for supper when suddenly, gunshots sounded.

Paddling frantically toward his campsite, he spotted a strange motorboat floating between the two islands. At the campsite, he found the abandoned pot still boiling. Somnyon was collapsed on the ground a little ways away, with a wound on her leg gushing blood.
   "You bastards! How could you shoot a living person?" Hwang raised his fists and screamed. The Japs, who had been busily loading a seal into their boat, turned and gaped at him.
   One fellow who seemed to understand some Korean came to the front of the boat and called out, "Oh, was someone injured? That's not our fault. You folks get mixed in with the seals, and it's hard to tell you apart. Koreans and seals are so much alike."
   "What? You thieving bastards, you think Koreans are the same as seals?"
   He had heard that the oenom had been making huge profits from seal hunting on Dokdo, but this was his first run-in with them. It was bad enough that they came creeping over to another country's islands like a thieving street cat, but to actually hurt people?  These were not simply thieves, they were bandits and beasts! Hwang thought: Oh, if only I had a gun, I would rain fire on their heads until I felt better...
   "You bastards, what gives you the right to come to someone else's island, hunt seals and shoot people?"
    At Hwang's relentless scolding, the Japs stopped what they were doing and came crowding to the front of their boat. The one who spoke Korean put on a bold front for his buddies: "This is Japan's land, Takeshima. Don't you know that?"
   "Don't talk nonsense. Dokdo has been Korean land for generations. Since when did it become yours?"
   "And what is Korea? There is no more Korea, so how could it be a Korean island?" The Japanese laughed. "Guy doesn't even have a country, and he says this is his country's island..."
Myongduk had also come paddling over at the sound of the gunshot. When he saw that Somnyon had been shot, the irascible fisherman flew into a rage and paddled over to the Japanese vessel, shouting obscenities. The Japanese fired several warning shots to keep him away, but when he started beating their boat with an oar one of them lowered his gun defensively, and accidentally shot him in the head.

Seeing his friend slump motionless in the boat, Hwang momentarily forgot his wife and rushed over to help. The Japanese took advantage of the confusion to beat a hasty retreat. Hwang turned to Myongduk's young companion and told him to make haste back to Ulleungdo to get medical care. After seeing his wounded friend off, he returned to his wife.

Her face was pale from loss of blood, but the more immediate problem was that the shock had sent her into labor. Hwang knew she would not survive long without help, but the nearest midwife was on Ulleungdo. Desperate, he began trying to load his wife onto the boat, but she just moaned and shook her head.
"If I'm going to die, I want to die here on Dokdo. This is where we fell in love, and I feel at peace here."
Somnyon finally gave birth, and then passed out from pain and blood loss. Hwang shook her awake, pleading with her to live, but it was no use. With her dying breath, she asked Hwang to take care of their baby, and bury the placenta on Dokdo.

Hwang accommodated his wife's dying wish, burying the placenta under the rocky shoal near their cottage, and marking the spot with a large rock. He then set off for Ulleungdo, with his newborn son squalling for milk and his dead wife lying motionless beside him. Upon arrival, he learned that his buddy Myongduk succumbed to his wounds en route as well.

Hearing that Japanese poachers had killed two people, the Ulleungdo islanders marched to the township offices to demand justice, but the (Japanese) township officials replied that since they had let the assailants go there was no way to find them and charge them. However, noting that none of them had obtained permits to fish on Dokdo, they charged Hwang and Myongduk's young assistant with trespassing and put them both in jail.

After languishing in jail for a month, Hwang returned to find that his baby had survived in his mother's care, although they had had to beg for help feeding him. Soon after that, he got his draft notice from the Japanese military. Hwang knew that without his support his entire family and Somnyon's surviving family would starve. With no other choice, he left to seek his fortune on the mainland, promising his mother he would send for them as soon as he could.

Hwang traveled north as far as Chongjin, where he found work as a day laborer. He sent word back to Ulleungdo with an acquaintance, and his mother brought the family to join him. Somehow, they survived to the end of the war.

   [Hwang recalls to Professor Hyun]: That August, the anti-Japanese struggle was victorious, the Japs were crushed and we were liberated. I remember it like yesterday, sweeping through the streets with my buddies, cheering "long live!" for General Kim Il Sung at the top of my lungs. The first spring after liberation, General Kim Il Sung visited Chongjin and held a huge celebration for the international worker's holiday on May 1st, declaring that the workers were now the owners of the country. I joined the march on that first May Day, waving the red flag proudly, and felt it was truly wonderful to be alive.
   To think that this poor fisherman, a draft dodger without a country, could become one of the owners of the new nation...  At that moment I realized that in order to live like human beings, people need a country of their own, led by a great General who serves the people as if they were heaven.
   Through all that, I never forgot Ulleungdo and Dokdo. I longed to spread my wings on my native island, free from the treacherous oenom. I kept thinking I would go back soon, but I waited too long and then the American bastards blocked us off at the 38th parallel. I wonder if I will ever get to go home again, and see Somnyon's grave...
At this point Hwang broke off telling his story, as there was a knock on the door. In walked a tall young soldier in a neat navy uniform. Hwang revealed that this was none other than his son, Tae Seok, now all grown up. He had been granted leave to visit home as a reward for his stellar performance in training.
"Professor, listen to this old man's words. Tae Seok, you sit and listen too. We say that Ulleungdo and Dokdo belong to our country, but that isn't just because it's written so in books and on maps. It's our land because our Korean placenta is buried there, and our sweat and our tears and dreams permeate the land."
Back in the present day, continuing his story to the young interviewer, Professor Hyun confesses that he recently met Hwang's son Tae Seok again, at a naval base on the East coast. The young soldier had grown to become a distinguished-looking naval commander.
    "Father passed away several years ago at 80, having never again seen his hometown on Ulleungdo. Even after you left, he kept on reminding me, 'You are a son of Dokdo. Your placenta is still buried there, under that large rock I left as a marker. He made me swear that I would protect it, not just as my duty but to preserve my parents' honor."
   His eyes scanning the distant horizon, Tae Seok continued: "Nowadays the Japanese reactionaries are acting completely ridiculous - declaring "Takeshima Day," printing distorted textbooks, claiming Dokdo in their 2005 Defense White Paper, and whatnot. They've even mobilized their warships and jets to make practice landing drills. They've made illegal intrusions in the area around Dokdo: 45 times in 1993, 63 in 1994, 85 in 1995, and 58 times in just 9 months from January to September 1999. It gets worse every year.... We soldiers will never forgive those who infringe on our national sovereignty."
Long after the interviewer leaves, Professor Hyun sits at his window contemplating that old fisherman's tale. The story ends as he takes up his pen and begins to write.

Territory as destiny

The story cleverly connects the Dokdo issue with the history of the Korean nation and the threat of becoming "a people without a country" (망국노) Several times in his story the old fisherman associates his sorrows with the fact that he had "lost his country." The Japanese who mock him after shooting his wife make a point of reminding him that he has no country, and therefore no claim, to the islets.

In concluding his remarks to his interviewer, Professor Hyun warns,
If we allow even a slight infringement of our country's sovereignty, the country will be taken away piece by piece and we will become a people without a country, penniless, aimless and scattered. Dokdo may be just a few rocky islets, but it is not small. It is a precious land imbued with our people's honor and infused with our forefathers' blood.
Interestingly, not once does the story mention the fact that the islands are currently occupied by the South Korean military. Clearly there are no North Koreans there, as the old fisherman bemoans being unable to visit either Dokdo or his ancestral home on Ulleungdo. And the Japanese clearly do not hold the islands, as they are supposedly planning an invasion. But the reader is left unaware of the current defensive fortifications on the islets, and the fact that they have become a major tourist destination for patriotic South Koreans.

Indeed, the reader is left with the strong impression that the islands are somehow being defended by the North Korean military. For instance, the old fisherman's parting words to Professor Hyun are:
"Don't worry, Professor. As long as we have General Kim Jong Il's revolutionary Songun leadership and our invincible Korean People's Army, Dokdo will remain our land. This is not just me talking; it is backed up by our soldiers, who don't know how to make empty threats."
Legal background for Dokdo

As this story seems primarily aimed at educating North Koreans about the details of the conflict, the narrator takes several long asides to reflect on the details. At the outset, we find the historian Hyun Young Ryul alone in his office, contemplating historical patterns:
  Taking advantage of the "Unyang Incident" that they had fabricated, the Japanese Imperialists threatened the feudal government of Joseon (리조봉건정부) and forced them into the Kanghwa Treaty. Then, by Article 5 of the Eulsa Treaty, they seized control of Korea. Even after their regime collapsed and they were chased out, at every opportunity they plotted to reinvade. Looking over the long list of such incidents, one can uncover a clear historical pattern.
  The recent moves by the Japanese imperialists to talk of our land of Dokdo, in the seas southeast of Ulleungdo, as "common territory" reflect a continuation of this pattern that cannot be overlooked.
  The Dokdo problem has continued for over 100 years, but never before have our people been so united and gutsy in responding to it.
   What has awakened our people so abruptly? In this era when we guard our independence like our lives, it is imperative that we view the Dokdo matter as not merely a territorial issue but as a serious political issue.
Later, in the midst of Hyun's story about the fisherman, his interviewer interrupts:
   "Professor! Lately these Japanese reactionaries have been going on about the Shimane Prefecture Edict 40, saying it 'proves' the legal basis of their right to Dokdo. Could you explain that in more detail?"
   Hyun Young Ryul replied without a moment's hesitation: "Edict 40 was concocted in February 1905 by the Shimane prefectural government to establish Takeshima - that is, Dokdo - as part of their prefecture. This tricky document is not worth even discussing. More importantly, we should be asking ourselves what the Dokdo issue signifies, and what its wider implications are.
   "Of course, the Japanese imperialists' designs toward Korea have always been the same, but we can assess that the Dokdo issue only really began around 1905. A Japanese whaler from Shimane named Nakai Yosaburo had been illegally hunting seals in the surrounding waters since 1903, making huge profits every year. By incorporating Dokdo into Shimane Prefecture he hoped to gain a monopoly on seal hunting. The Japanese government, which was just waiting for the chance to acquire Korea, approved Nagai's lease petition in January 1905 and determined that Dokdo, as "unclaimed land," could be incorporated into Japanese territory. Accordingly, on February 22 of that year Shimane Prefecture concocted Edict 40 and unilaterally incorporated Dokdo as its territory.
   "But was Dokdo really 'unclaimed land'? Already 1500 years have passed since the land of Usan (including Ulleungdo and Dokdo) was absorbed into the Shilla kingdom in 512 AD, as is recorded in the History of the Three Kingdoms (삼국사기). According to the basic principles of international law, a state can only claim a territory as 'unclaimed land' if its people were the first to inhabit it. By that principle, our country had already claimed ownership of Ulleungdo and Dokdo 1500 years ago.
   "Furthermore, the feudal Chosun government reaffirmed its possession of Dokdo in accordance with modern international law in October 1900 when King Kojong issued Edict 41, proclaiming Dokdo and Ulleungdo as part of Kangwon Prefecture."
This description matches pretty closely with South Korea's arguments supporting its own claim. One slight difference is that the North Koreans seem to more readily acknowledge the role played by King Kojong and the fading Chosun Dynasty. As a "feudal" government, it is regarded by the DPRK as illegitimate, and thus any legal documents they may have signed can be freely acknowledged and condemned without risk of contradiction.

Explaining Dokdo's value

Early on, Hyun explains to his interviewer that the area around Dokdo is rich in natural resources, not only fisheries but liquefied natural gas, "the oil of the sea." Later, after telling the fisherman's tale, Hyun elaborates on why he believes Japan covets the islands so much:
"There is no historical or legal grounds to doubt our country's claim to Dokdo. Yet the Japanese imperialists continue to make trouble about it. It is vital for us to understand the source of their ambitions.
   "Japan's desire for Dokdo stems from two root causes. The first is economic; they want to monopolize the rich natural resources in the waters and seabed around Dokdo, while using the islets as a base to redraw the ocean territory and push their exclusive economic zone closer to our country.
   "The second is their military aspirations. During the Russo-Japanese war they used it as a refueling base to defeat the czarist Russian fleet, and in the same way they intend to use it again when they invade the north and re-take Korea. In other words, the Japanese militarists want to use Dokdo as a military beachhead (군사적교두보) to re-invade Korea, on the way to finally achieving their old dream of conquering all of Asia."

Hyun then proceeds with a lengthy historical explanation of the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" (대동아 공영권), Japan's ambitious plan for regional domination which he believes it has never truly abandoned.


Historical references

I was mildly surprised to see casual references to Eulji Mundeok and Yi Sun Shin in the story. I had been led to understand that North Koreans typically don't learn much about historical people or incidents unless members of the Kim family are directly involved. For instance, I recently discovered that one of my North Korean students was unaware of the story of Perry's Black Ships, although he knew all about the General Sherman.

North Korean geographic terms and labels

This story filled me in on all the various terms for Japanese, including the following:
일제   Japanese imperialists
일본반동들    Japanese reactionaries
일본군국주의자    Japanese militarists
왜놈   oenom, ethnic slur for Japanese

In addition, I learned these unfamiliar terms:
리조봉건정부  Feudal government of Choseon (i.e. the Choseon Dynasty)
짜리 로시야   Czarist Russia

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