What’s the deal with Dokdo?

South Koreans want the world to know about Dokdo, aka Takeshima, aka Liancourt Rocks. Korean soccer player, Park Jong Woo scored the biggest audience so far for the Dokdo debate when Korea beat Japan for the Olympic bronze, but lost his chance to be a part of the medal ceremony. He may not get the medal awarded at all, but he does get out of having to do compulsory military service. Before Park held up his handmade sign on the world stage, Koreans in London were handing out flyers about Dokdo to the international tourists around the city. Korea really wants us to know what’s going on, because so far, no one seems to care, no matter how hard they flash mob for the cause.

Dokdo is found in Korea’s written records as early as 512, during the Shilla Dynasty. The islands show up in Japanese written records in 1693, and are eventually known in the Japanese record as Takeshima. Korea promptly sent an emissary to Japan to let them know back then that the islands were Korean territory, and Japan backed off. In 1849 a French whaling ship charted the island, and in typical European fashion, made up their own name for it, Liancourt Rocks. Japan came back again in 1876, and once more Korea protested. Japan apologized, again, and left it alone until the peninsula and all its territories were under Japanese control during 35 years of occupation. The Japanese were stoked on the prime sea lion hunting location.

After liberation in 1945, Dokdo was Korean territory again. The US used the islands as a bombing range in 1952 and stationed US troops there for a short time. The islands have been more than just a pile of rocks for a very long time. They are home to good fishing grounds, untapped gas deposits, and did I mention the sea lions?

So, now what’s to be done? Takeshima has become a platform for Japanese conservatives to stand their ground against outside agencies telling Japan what to do, and it’s also been a talking point for holding on to dwindling natural resources close to home. Dokdo has long been a focal point of Korean efforts to right the wrongs of a traumatic past. Dokdo was the starting point for the annexation of the Korean peninsula in 1910, and represents much more. No one is actively campaigning for the recognition of “Liancourt Rocks”, but who really cares about “rocks” anyhow? How can all parties move forward?

Japan doesn’t like to apologize for war crimes, and it doesn’t like to concede.  Takeshima gives steady fodder to the conservatives who influence government, education, and foreign policy. Currently airing Korean television dramas about freedom fighters during the occupation are popular and get consistently high ratings.  Dokdo makes regular appearances in Korean media and has become a focal point of national pride. If the closure Koreans need hasn’t been granted (if Han allows for any closure at all) then this, and other issues will be ongoing, straining both sides of the argument for future generations to wrestle with.

We’ll be hearing about Dokdo/Takeshima for a long time, until some agreement can be made about how to create a future with less tension, more understanding, and efforts are made to heal from a difficult past.