“It was wondrous in a word,” said Kang Ye-jin, a senior at a Seoul art high school. “I found Dokdo so beautiful. It came to me vividly that we must keep the island at all costs.”
Like any Korean student her age, Ye-jin has learned about Japan’s contentious claim over the East Sea islets of Dokdo, Korea’s easternmost outpost, also known as Liancourt Rocks. And, of course, she has seen TV footage of the islets. “Honestly,” she said, “I was little interested in the constant wrangling about which country Dokdo belongs to. But the moment I faced the island myself, I felt a whole lot different.”
A visual arts major aspiring to become a film director like Tim Burton, Ye-jin was one of 19 participants in the “2022 Multicultural Youth Summer Camp on Ulleungdo and Dokdo,” hosted by the Inclover Foundation last week. The Dokdo visit highlighted the four-day photography camp for elementary and secondary school students. Dokdo -- two main islets and many surrounding rocks -- lies 87 kilometers southeast of Ulleungdo in the East Sea. Ulleungdo itself is a six-hour, 200-kilometer cruise from Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, following a four-hour bus ride from Seoul.
On the morning of Aug. 12, the skies over Ulleungdo’s exquisite mountaintops were crisp blue and the calm sea sparkled in the bright sunlight. Expectations heightened for a successful landing on Dokdo, the chances of which are less than 50 percent around the year. Approaching the steep, rocky islets, our ship was unable to dock due to rolling waves. We were limited to circling the islets for about half an hour.
“It was a pity that we couldn’t set foot on Dokdo because of sea conditions,” said Kim Dae-jin, a senior at a middle school in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province. “But looking around from nearby, I could see beauty that I wasn’t able to feel from any model or photograph. The awesome, rocky islets were much larger than thought. It was nice to observe the scenery carved by nature between craggy cracks on the huge rocks.”
“I realized once again that we must defend the island,” Dae-jin added. “When school reopens after vacation, I’m going to tell my classmates that I have seen Dokdo. It’s a great experience to brag about.”
Upon their arrival on Ulleungdo on the previous day, the students attended a lecture and was quizzed about the history of Dokdo, which is part of a public education program of Dokdo Museum. Named “Dokdo Academy,” the program has mainly targeted public officials from around the country to raise their knowledge of Dokdo’s history and geography and the background of the territorial dispute. The students were the program’s youngest audience ever, besides being the first multinational group of youths.
“Frankly, the lecture itself wasn’t very exciting for us children, but now I understand precisely why Dokdo is our land,” said An Seo-yeon, a sixth grader from Gunpo, Gyeonggi Province. She said she would share her newfound understanding with her parents.
All of the students are enrolled in the Inclover Foundation’s one-year photography class. The foundation also offers woodcarving, cooking and baking classes, a curriculum created for children of multicultural families. The mothers of the students on the trip are from six countries: China, Japan, Mongolia, Russia, Ukraine and Vietnam.
The photography camp on Ulleungdo and Dokdo was a brainchild of Han Yong-oe, founder and chairman of the foundation, which is devoted to the welfare of multicultural families in Korea. Considering the location of the camp site and travel distance, as well as the cost of transporting the students, mentors and staff, it was an outstanding feat for a small private organization. The unexpected, record downpour in the central region was obviously a cause for concern at the last minute, but fortunately, there wasn’t much rain along the group’s travel route.
Han explained that the camp was designed to increase the students’ understanding of Korean history and hopefully instill in them the notion that Dokdo is Korean territory. He believes that historical and cultural awareness is essential for multicultural children settling in Korean society. “Children of multiracial backgrounds cannot but have a weaker sense of belonging in our society,” he said. “I think a trip to Dokdo can boost their sense of pride and belonging with native friends and have a positive impact on their future.”
Han asked the students to take as many photos as they could. His idea is that they would be able to have more dialogue with their parents and friends, showing their photos of gorgeous scenery of the remote islands. Dialogue will likely reduce the possible conflict in their family and classroom, helping the students to grow up with self-confidence and love for the community, he believes. Later in the year, he plans to hold an exhibition of the students’ works and award them.
On the sidelines of the camp, Han carried out his signature project of taking photographs of local multicultural families. At the Ulleung County’s health and family support center, he took photos of 10 families, with a total of 32 members.
It was a one-stop volunteer service: Han and his six-member volunteer team instantly turned a room of the community center into a makeshift studio. Within 30 minutes, photos of families were taken, edited, printed and framed, and presented to the families waiting in another room. In this way, Han’s team has taken and gifted photos of some 6,000 multicultural families throughout Korea since 2010.
“Why do we present family photos? It’s for their happiness,” said Han, a retired Samsung CEO and accomplished photographer. “The happiness of multicultural families is important for our society and country. It will increasingly become so in the future.”
Given the nation’s rock-bottom fertility rate -- the lowest in the world -- and ever-increasing multicultural marriages in Korea, inclusive education of multicultural children and happiness of their families cannot be overemphasized, as Han argues. Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.