Getting angry won’t solve anything

By Korea Herald

Ignorance is biggest hurdle in fending off Japan’s territorial claim

  • Published : Jan 10, 2014 - 19:58
  • Updated : Jan 10, 2014 - 19:58
Seo Kyoung-duk poses with a copy of “Ten Moments in Korean History You Should Know” at his office in northern Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Emotion has no place in international politics, according to John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s. “The United States of America does not have friends; it has interests,” he said.

Korea’s Dokdo expert couldn’t agree more.

Seo Kyoung-duk grabbed international attention after placing a full-page Dokdo advertisement in The New York Times in 2005 with funding support from pop singer Kim Jang-hoon. The ad explained why Dokdo, islets next to Ulleungdo in the East Sea, belonged to Korea, in face of a long-running claim by Japan.

The islets are currently inhabited by Koreans and under Korea’s effective control. Korea calls them Dokdo, but Japan calls them Takeshima as if they are its territory, drawing the ire of Koreans.

Last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine to pay his respects to war dead, including war criminals, provoking Koreans as well as Chinese.

“Responding to everything Japan does or says is unwise,” says Seo, professor of general education at Sungshin Women’s University. “Because getting angry won’t solve anything. It only makes people more emotional,” he said.

Japan is hurting itself through such acts, says Seo.

“Do you know?” the 2005 ad read. “Dokdo (two islands) located in the East Sea is a part of Korean territory … Please visit for historical background and more information on the East Sea and Dokdo.”

The advertisement created a sudden Dokdo fervor in South Korea with ordinary citizens praising Seo for doing what even the government had seemingly failed to do ― telling the world why Dokdo belonged to South Korea.

Since then, Seo has been called a “Korea PR Expert,” a moniker written even on his business card.

He posted additional ads in the following years in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post, discussing both diplomatically sensitive subjects such as the comfort women issue, the nomenclature of the East Sea (also known as the Sea of Japan in some countries) and introducing bibimbap and makgeolli, a dish and a type of alcohol sold at Korean restaurants worldwide. Comfort women are women forced by Japan to provide sex to its soldiers during World War II.

Seo told The Korea Herald that his ads, often funded from his own pocket, were only starting points for shaking off Japan’s territorial claims to Dokdo and promoting Korean culture.

“Engaging other countries in a verbal war about territorial sovereignty is simply getting into an emotional battle,” he said. “We must approach these problems through cultural exchanges and softer methods.”

China and Japan are prime examples for Seo. There are Chinatowns worldwide, while Japanese sushi restaurants are just as ubiquitous.

“Why not promote our image by sending Korean food to destinations across the world?” said Seo. Food, he said, was the most natural way to cultivate a positive national image among foreigners. That’s why Seo has been actively promoting Korean food in foreign countries with comedians from the MBC TV show “Infinite Challenge” and actress Lee Young-ae.

On Monday, Seo posted a front-page ad in The Wall Street Journal Europe edition, advertising Korea’s rice beer makgeolli, with actor Song Il-gook as the main model.

“We must remember though,” said Seo, “cultural promotion is a two-way street. We should take interest in the cultures of others before we demand their attention.”

“Once foreigners know that Koreans are taking interest in their traditions and culture, I am sure they’ll return the favor.”

Sungshin Women’s University professor Seo Kyoung-duk gives a thumbs-up aboard a boat in front of Dokdo. (Seo Kyoung-duk)

Seo pointed out South Korea’s small foreign aid budget as an obstacle. Especially insufficient was official development assistance ― government funds allocated for outright donation, or generous loans to underdeveloped nations for health care, education and construction programs.

Although South Korea’s aid funds are on the rise, it ranked 22nd in official development assistance as a percent of gross national income and 16th in nominal aid globally, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

More important than foreign aid and cultural exchanges, though, is knowing ourselves, before demanding others understand us, according to Seo.

“It is not Japan or any other country that threatens Dokdo most. It is our own ignorance.”

The scholar was surprised at how many Koreans could not explain logically why Dokdo belonged to South Korea, despite their passionate indignation at Japan’s outright claims to the easternmost Korean islets.

Seo opened a school next to the Independence Hall of Korea in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province, where independence movement leaders during the Japanese occupation period (1910-45) are honored. The school’s raison d’etre is to educate Koreans ― especially children ― as to why the islands are Korean territory.

Since the school’s founding on March 1, 2013, up to 3,000 elementary and secondary school students have attended classes at the school. Seo, meanwhile, has been traveling extensively to teach Dokdo classes to Koreans living abroad who can’t visit Cheonan in person.

Seo most recently gave a Dokdo class at the Centre Culturel Coreen a Paris, or the Korean cultural center in Paris, on Wednesday. That was his 12th trip abroad, after visits to New York, Amsterdam and Shanghai, to teach Dokdo classes.

“As long as we know why Dokdo is ours, it’s not going to matter how many times Japan asserts claims to the islets.”

In November 2013, Seo’s book “Ten Moments in Korean History You Should Know” hit bookstores nationwide. The book touches on the Dokdo, comfort women and Yasukuni Shrine issues, among others. All profits from the book sales will be used for future publicity campaigns about Korea.

Seo plans to buy the world’s first nationally owned advertisement display screen in Times Square in New York. He has collected over 50 percent of necessary funds from corporate sponsors. He plans to use the display screen to promote Korean food, music and Dokdo.

“Because in the end, it is us who have to protect what’s ours.”

By Jeong Hunny