Sunday, July 26, 2009

‘The Second Dokdo Trip – reflections of an NET’

The education department recently invited 20 Native English Teachers (NETs) (that's us) on trip (the 2nd of two) to the Korean islands of Ulleung-do and Dokdo. We were asked to write a 3-page essay on our exeprience of the trip, so I thought I'd post my essay here. (unedited).

‘The Second Dokdo Trip – reflections of an NET’

I was fortunate to be invited by EPIK/Gyeongsangbuk-do Education Office to go on their ‘Second Trip to Dokdo’ last week. I feel so privileged and grateful to have been on this trip.

The experience I had on Ulleung-do can be divided into three parts: beautiful Ulleung-do, meeting students from Ulleung-do and learning about Dokdo.

I was absolutely amazed by how beautiful Ulleung-do is. I had heard from some other people who had been on the trip that it was a pretty place, but nothing can prepare you for seeing the island yourself: those huge, steep volcanic cliffs plunging into the deep blue ocean, the green, green forests, the lovely pebble beaches, the beautiful views and the sea gulls everywhere. I felt closer to nature on Ulleung-do than I have anywhere else in Korea. Our hosts on Ulleung-do went out of their way to show us all their island has to offer: we went on wonderful walks up steep mountains, saw gorgeous waterfalls, and had many, many opportunities to take photographs of spectacular views!

The people of Ulleung-do also struck me as beautiful: I feel that Ulleung-do is largely untouched in the sense that a lot of the landscape is undisturbed – probably thanks to its inaccessibility - but I also feel like Ulleung-do seems to have escaped the commercialisation which has overtaken the Korean mainland. There are very few bright flashing lights, no large supermarkets, no fast food restaurants and so on. The people seem so open and relaxed. There is little traffic on the island, people walk a lot and generally seem more in touch with nature than elsewhere in Korea. I think the people of Ulleung-do are very fortunate in that respect.

Although maybe this also has its disadvantages: the competition for high quality education and good jobs in Korea is intense: I have only been here for 9 months yet I have already realised how difficult it is being a student in Korea, or a young person trying to find their feet in the job world. For people growing up on Ulleung-do it must be difficult to get positions at the top Universities in Korea: they seem to live simpler lives with less pressure on them than students in the urban parts of Korea. For example, when I ask my students back home in Sangju – which isn’t even the height or urbanisation in Korea – what their plans are for the summer vacation, most of them (around 80%) tell me they are going to study. Chatting to the students in Ulleung-do I got more responses along the lines of swimming and spending time outdoors. The children on Ulleung-do are so blessed to be able to swim and have such beautiful natural surroundings to spend time in – and I’m glad to say that they seem to enjoy it!

I feel quite sad about the pressure put on young children in Korea to work hard and study, study, study. I feel relieved to know there are some havens in Korea where children can still have fun! Since they don’t seem to be putting as much time in to their studies, and they have less opportunities for extra study, it would seem the natural course for them to continue in the footsteps of their parents and stay on Ulleung-do as farmers or fishermen. But what about those students who aspire to be something else? To be a doctor? A lawyer? A pop star? For them, reaching these kind of goals having had humble beginnings in Ulleung-do might be a really tough challenge. But having a healthy lifestyle and most likely healthy family relations might well build character, and that is what one needs to meet such tough challenges!

Talking about challenges brings me neatly onto the topic of Dokdo. Truly a challenge – and one which I have come to realise it probably not going to be resolved anytime soon. I was slightly wary of coming along on this trip as I know how passionate most Korean people are about Dokdo, and I was worried that we would be ‘told’ to support Korea’s side of the Dokdo argument and given no option. Some advertising I have seen in Korean newspapers is very uncompromising and forceful, and I was apprehensive that we might be subjected to something along those lines.

I was thus very pleased when we had a guest with us from a university in Pohang. Professor Lee gave us a very interesting and balanced talk about the Dokdo issue. Professor Lee accompanied us on our tour of the Dokdo museum and to the platform high up above Dodong town from which one can sometimes see Dokdo island. This was great as it gave us the opportunity to speak to him one-on-one about his interests, and to broach the topic of Dokdo. In his talk, Professor Lee gave us an objective explanation of the origins of the Dokdo conflict and explained to us that the biggest challenge in the issue of Dokdo lies in the differing ‘nature’ of the claims of Japan and Korea on Dokdo island. Korea has a ‘historic’ claim on Dokdo island, whereas Japan has a ‘legal’ claim over the island. This means that both have legitimate claims over the island, but because they are of different natures, resolving who truly owns Dokdo will be very difficult indeed.

Professor Lee also explained to us how there is a possibility that this issue could be brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to be resolved, but that Korea is wary of this as there are more Japanese representatives in the ICJ than Korean, and this could lead to a bias. This is understandable, and to me it would seem that the fact that Dokdo currently has Korean Police stationed on it seems to indicate that Korea is slightly ‘ahead’ in this tussle as it is currently more actively involved with Dokdo. Thus, for the issue to be taken to the ICJ could mean Korea losing this little bit of control it has over Dokdo. For Korea, the Dokdo dispute also has historical ties to the fact that Korea was colonised by Japan, and that the Korean people suffered a lot of injustice and ill-treatment at the hands of their colonisers. It would seem that this is the reason that the Dokdo dispute is such an emotional matter for the Korean people. It is a matter of national pride, and a matter which binds the Korean people together in their quest to prove themselves superior to Japan – or if not superior, then at least not inferior.

Unfortunately due to poor weather and subsequently rough seas, our group was unable to visit Dokdo island. This was of course a disappointment, as the primary purpose of the trip was for us to ‘have proper viewpoints on Dokdo debate’ – and I’m sure that seeing the island and setting foot on it would’ve been an integral part of this process. I feel like I learned a lot about the Dokdo debate – I wonder if the average Korean citizen is as well informed about the debate, or whether Koreans simply follow their leaders and their media in believing that Dokdo island rightfully belongs to them? I appreciate the education department allocating resources to educating us about this important issue in Korea – and that I got to spend some valuable time getting to know the wonderful island of Ulleung-do.

Ulleung-do is undoubtedly the most beautiful place I have visited in Korea – I am yet to visit Jeju-do but it has a hard act to follow in my mind!


As much as I enjoyed the trip, I do have some suggestions as to how it could be improved on for the next time:

It would have been nice for us to have a semi-formal introductions session where the NETs, KETs and students could introduce themselves to one another. In this session maybe one could play some ice-breaker type games to get to know each other a bit better. We were asked to speak to the students in our groups as much as possible, but it would have been nice to have an opportunity to warm to each other first.

Simililarly, I think our interactions with the students would have been a bit easier and more fun if we had played some games – maybe even language games – with them. This would have been a more constructive way of them practicing English with us. Spending so much time touring the island they grew up un would not have been that much fun for the students. They were very well-behaved but I do think they got a bit bored.

It would have been a bit more relaxing for the NETs if we had had a bit more free time. I realise that we were meant to spend as much time ass possible with the students but having some time to ourselves to enjoy the island would’ve made the trip more enjoyable for us – we are independent travellers and to be on a full schedule and a guided tour all the time can be a bit much.

Thanks again,

Jessica Cockburn Sangju-si, 20 July 2009


Karin said...

Sounds wonderful. how long til you come home?

Unknown said...

Wow, Jess - you descibe your experiences so beautifully - thank you for sharing them with us! :-)