Tsushima’s S. Koreans: guests or guerrillas?

by Maya Kaneko

Kyodo News

TSUSHIMA, Nagasaki Pref. — Located 50 km off the Korean Peninsula, the island of Tsushima has recently seen an influx of South Korean tourists. But far from celebrating, some islanders and conservative Japanese politicians see a looming national security threat in foreign property acquisitions in the wake of the boom.

Long touted as a “natural fortress,” the 700-sq.-km island is home to about 36,000 people. About 90 percent of the island is covered by mountains and forests. It is also considered strategically important; some 700 Self-Defense Forces members are stationed in Tsushima to keep watch over coastal areas.

The number of South Korean tourists visiting the island, located about 130 km northwest of Fukuoka, has been on the rise since the launch in 1999 of a high-speed ferry service linking it to the South Korean port of Busan in as little as 90 minutes, Tsushima city officials said.

In 2008, 72,349 South Koreans visited the island, thanks to the won’s strength against the yen, before falling to 45,266 in 2009 due to the global economic crisis and the won’s subsequent sharp fall.

Even though these visitors contributed an estimated ¥2.1 billion to the local economy and generated 260 jobs on an island struggling with depopulation, word that a plot next to a Maritime Self-Defense Force facility is occupied by a lodge that houses mostly South Korean fishermen has irked local residents and conservative politicians.

“Although the MSDF says the presence of the lodge does not present any problem with its activities, we feel as if we are being kept under surveillance” by the South Koreans, said Masayoshi Matsui, who heads the local chapter of the Japan Conference, a group of conservatives.

The purchase of the land in 2007, which was originally owned by a Japanese pearl farming company, was made in the name of a local Japanese resident and it did not cause any legal concerns as the area was not under city zoning rules, according to the Tsushima officials.

That’s not how the islanders and conservative politicians see it, however, pointing to an ordinance passed in March 2005 by South Korea’s Masan Municipal Assembly. The ordinance designated June 19 “Daemado (Tsushima) Day,” and claimed the island as South Korean territory.

The municipal assembly in the South Korean southern port city said the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the last dynasty on the Korean Peninsula, dispatched its navy to conquer Tsushima, which was said to be a base for Japanese pirates, on June 19, 1419.

The total land area known to be held by South Korean entities accounts for only 0.007 percent of the island, but those alarmed by the move see these places as possible bases for spies and guerrilla infiltrators.

Eriko Yamatani, an Upper House Member with the Liberal Democratic Party, has been calling for special legislation on Tsushima to restrict land sales to foreigners and to introduce measures to boost the local economy without heavily depending on South Korean tourists.

She heads a Diet group seeking to protect Japanese territory.

Tsushima officials take a more sanguine view. They continue to promote the island as a tourist destination to South Koreans, hoping to raise the number of visitors to 100,000.

Kenichiro Motoishi, head of the city’s tourism and industry promotion office, pointed out that the central government has tried to support the economy of remote islands to maintain the country’s territorial integrity since the 19th century, but has failed to do so because of its weak financial base.

“If (tourists) spend money here, we don’t care if they are Japanese or South Koreans,” Motoishi said.

“We cannot overlook transactions concerning national sovereignty, but otherwise they are welcome. What’s the difference between the Korean property purchase and the Japanese acquisition of Rockefeller Center?” Motoishi said, referring to the outcry in the United States over the purchase of the landmark building in New York in the late 1980s by Japanese real estate developer Mitsubishi Estate Co.

About a dozen South Korean veterans demonstrated in front of City Hall in July 2008 to claim territorial rights over the island, but such people are rare, he said.

Hong Kun Ho, manager of the Tsushima Daea hotel, which is run by a group based in Pohang, South Korea, that also operates the high-speed ferry, said almost all the customers at his hotel are South Koreans who visit the island on two- to three-day package tours.

Many are in their 50s or older and go fishing and hiking in the “quiet and relaxing atmosphere” of the island, he said.

Hong defended the presence of the South Korean-owned lodge next to the MSDF installation, saying he believes it did not intentionally choose the site because of its proximity to the military facility.

He also said the number of troubles involving South Korean tourists on Tsushima seems to have declined, with the visitors and Tsushima residents getting accustomed to each other. On the city’s streets, in supermarkets and in public lavatories, one can see signs in Korean.