Celebrities take risk to promote Dokdo

Not a year has passed without Japan making provocative claims to Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo. This has always stirred angry reactions from many Korean celebrities, some of whom kicked off campaigns of their own to promote this country’s sovereignty over the islands by taking advantage of their international popularity.

The latest provocation from Japan took place last week when it endorsed the release of new high school textbooks that claim Dokdo is Japan’s. Unlike in previous years, however, celebrities here stayed calm as the country was confronting a much bigger challenge from nuclear-armed North Korea, which threatened to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire” with unusually hostile rhetoric.

Against this backdrop, actor Heo Joon-ho received massive media attention last week for his spirited response regarding Dokdo in Japan in 2009, which was previously little known to his domestic fans. The episode was made public through an online community website and has spread quickly.

According to related postings, Heo was visiting Japan in May 2009 to promote the musical “Gambler,” in which he played a leading role. Back then, the actor was gaining popularity in Japan thanks to his charismatic performances in the TV drama “All In,” which was aired in Japan as well.

A press conference was held when Seoul-Tokyo ties were at rock bottom due to the territorial dispute. A Japanese journalist asked Heo to give his thoughts and stance on the dispute.

It was so sensitive an issue nobody would have criticized Heo if he avoided answering the question. It was also an extremely risky moment as any slip of the tongue could cost the up-and-coming actor in Japan a sizable loss of fans or even expulsion from the market. Nonetheless Heo did not hesitate to reply.

In response to the question, Heo stood from his seat and strode toward the questioning journalist and snatched a pen from the reporter’s hand. “What is your feeling now?” Heo asked the journalist without further explanation. It was all he did in response but it spoke volumes.

Heo is one of few celebrities who have clarified their stance on the geopolitical issue. Most singers and entertainers who do business in Japan normally stay quiet on the matter for fear of a negative impact on their business there.

Korean girl band KARA was given a similar question during a press conference in Seoul on Aug. 22, one week after Independence Day, which celebrates the country’s independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Following the question, the host of the event turned off the microphones of the band’s members so they were unable to answer.

Baby-faced actor and singer Jang Keun-suk, who receives rock star treatment in Japan, remains silent also. Their silence is a stark contrast to the actions of actor Bae Yong-joon. Bae, who took Japan by storm in the early 2000s and earned the nickname Yonsama, was asked a Dokdo-related question during a press conference in Japan in 2005.

“As a Korean citizen, it’s a matter of concern,” he answered briefly, promising he would provide a follow-up answer after studying the issue. A couple of days later, Bae posted the promised answer on his official website.

“Dokdo is Korean territory without doubt,” he said in the article. “So we need to deal with the issue with greater care.” Photos of foreigners who have smartphones with screens decorated with photos from a Dokdo promotion campaign initiated by singer Kim Jang-hoon. / Courtesy of Kim Jang-hoon

In an angry reaction, Japanese media outlets demanded Bae be banned from any money-making activities in Japan. But the animosity did not last long, leaving Bae’s Japanese fan base largely unaffected.

Among other entertainers who have openly raised their voices against Japan’s territorial ambitions are singer Kim Jang-hoon and actor Song Il-gook.

Kim is recognized as an avid Dokdo promoter who donated personal funds frequently to run ads promoting Korea’s sovereignty over the islands in The New York Times and other influential newspapers. Song is well known as a descendant of Gen. Kim Jwa-jin, who fought for Korea’s independence in the 1920s. The duo, teamed with a team of professional swimmers, successfully swam to Dokdo from mainland Korea on last year’s Independence Day.

Following the event, Japanese broadcasters put off airing two TV dramas in which Song played a leading role. In addition, the actor received a rare warning from then Senior Vice Foreign Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, who said he might find it difficult to visit Japan in the future. It’s uncertain whether an entry ban was actually imposed.

Anyhow, the broadcasting embargo and warning fell short of taming the actor who instead resisted the penalties with a self-written online posting in which he said, “I feel proud of myself for being able to participate in the swimming campaign and never regretted my past choice.”

Singer Kim is currently running another campaign that encourages smartphone users at home and abroad to decorate their device with Dokdo-related photos and images. The campaign started last month and more than 500 foreigners have joined it, he said, adding his goal is to have 100 million participants worldwide.

Choi Si-won, a member of Korean boy band TXVQ, was accused by Japanese people of retweeting a message from Korea’s presidential office on Aug. 10 last year, that read, “Dokdo is Korean territory which we must protect at any cost.”