JuliaMellor

Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

What’s Mine is Mine

In Let's Get Political on August 4, 2011 at 7:41 pm

It is a well known fact, if not selectively ignored, that the Korean War is not over.  There still remains a great big heavily fortified line at the 38th parallel to remind us of that.  As such, it may be unsurprising that from time to time (to time), there are territorial disputes over whose bits of land are whose.   However, South Korea doesn’t just spend its political energies defending its land from the tempestuous North.  Seoul has been locked in a bitter battle with Tokyo over a collection of islets between Korea and Japan.  With no end in sight.

‘Dokdo’ to Peninsula-ites, ‘Takashima’ if you’re Japanese, and the ‘Liancourt Rocks’ to the rest of us politically correct fence sitters.  These are the many names to describe two rather small islets and 35 even smaller rocks in the seas between Japan and Korea.  So fierce is the territorial claim from both countries, that neither can even agree on what to call the waters surrounding them, whether it be ‘Sea of Japan’ or the ‘East Sea’.  Maps and text books on both sides purport their respective claims, and passionate and sometimes disturbing protests are regularly staged to garner international attention.  To say that it’s a touchy subject would be understating at best.

The islets themselves are no Hawaii by any means, both being roughly 20 acres in size and boasting a less than hospitable habitat.  Currently they host a lighthouse, two water desalination plants, a helicopter pad, a post box, a staircase, a police barracks, and a large Korean flag visible by air.  The only two permanent residents on the islet are a 68 year old octopus fisherman Kim Seong Do and his wife.  Hardly big enough to start a war over.  So what’s all the fuss?  Some say fish, some say natural gas found in deep under the sea, some say traditional territory, some say spite.  However it would be naive to think it’s exclusively one or the other.  It’s not just a fight for rocks, energy and fresh seafood.  Nor is it really about who’s right and who’s wrong.  There are far deeper emotions at play.

(Above: Kim Seong Do and wife Kim Shin Yeol. Only permanent residents of Dokdo)

Often when asked about Korea’s past, words like North Korea, Korean War, Kim Jong Il, and nuclear threat spring to mind. But what these more modern challenges overshadow, was the equally violent annexation by Japan at the turn of the century.  Characterized by its brazen attempts at cultural eradication, Japan occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945.  That’s 35 years of brutal imperialist policies including torture and cultural oppression.  Whilst relations between the two countries have vastly improved, resentment still simmers and atrocities remembered.  But we’ll save those details for another story.

So consider for a moment, the timeline of the past century.  1910-1945 was the Japanese campaign to erase Korean identity and incorporate the peninsula into the Japanese empire.  A brief five year interval followed when Koreans attempted to rebuild themselves, only to be torn brother from brother in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.  And here we are, almost 60 years later, and somehow South Korea has pulled itself together to form a new nation in century of unprecedented global change.  Many in the outside world are none the wiser to the past century of struggle, suffering and sacrifice.  So after 100 years of invasion, division and land grabs, the reluctance to let anything go now is understandable.

In the new Korean identity that is being formed in the South daily, there remains echoes of mistrust towards the Japanese.  Politically the two countries are allies, and culturally the gap is bridged through shared interest in the music and entertainment industries.  Appreciation for Japanese exports and culture exist in the new generation, and certainly old wounds have, to an extent healed.  But a scar remains.   And just like all scars, if you keep picking at it, expect it to never fully disappear.

So every now and again ‘Dokdo’ will make headlines as both sides come up with new ways to keep the issue on the citizen agenda.  It’s a reminder that neither Japanese nor Koreans will forget their shared past.  It’s safe to say the “It’s mine,’ ‘No, it’s mine'” debate will wage for time to come.

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