Four decades ago, fisherman Kim Seong-do came to this tiny outcropping known as the lonely island in search of solitude and a good catch.
He moved into a cave here in 1971, scratching out a desolate existence on what South Korea calls Dokdo, whose two treeless islets rise from the water like shark’s teeth, battered by fierce winter storms.
Scaling its seaside cliffs, Kim found a freshwater spring reachable only by a rope strung up a 250-foot-high rock face. At night, his cave came alive with strange creatures.
“I can’t describe how bad the conditions were,” said Kim, now 72. “Everything you can think of crawled out of that cave at night.”
Out at sea in his battered wooden boat each day, he noticed another unsettling facet of life here: Japanese fishing boats. Mostly uneducated, raised on an isolated nearby island and mainly knowing fishing, Kim had inadvertently established his homestead on an islet that was at the center of an international controversy: Both South Korea and Japan claim the island as sovereign territory.
The islets, 130 miles east of the South Korean coast, are actually closer to Japan, but since 1953 Seoul has maintained possession, first with a volunteer military and later with a small contingent of police officers.
South Korean government officials immediately realized that a resident fisherman would boost their claims of ownership. And anyone crazy enough to want to make a life here should be given a chance, they reasoned. So they looked the other way when Dokdo’s new resident moved his meager fishing gear into his cave.
Kim soon proved to be a valuable asset. He quickly built a rudimentary thatch hut, where he cooked his fish dinners and played amateur sentry for the three dozen officers who maintain an observation post and residence camp on the top of the adjacent islet, just across a narrow channel.
Whenever Kim spied a Japanese fishing boat trying to land near his forlorn little hut, he’d throw a tantrum, shaking his fist and shouting obscenities to chase them away, rarely allowing one to make shore.
“I don’t like them; there’s no reason to like them,” said Kim, his deeply tanned face clenched in a frown. “They have no business coming anywhere near this island. It’s ours.”
Given a small monthly stipend by the government, the taciturn Kim is known for being equal parts Robinson Crusoe and guard dog. And these days, he’s angrier than ever; in fact, he seems to smile only to show off a new set of false teeth.
The rift between South Korea and Japan has worsened. New school textbooks in Japan reiterate its territorial claim to the islets it calls Takeshima. The Japanese Foreign Ministry recently banned officials from flying on Korean Air after one plane tipped its wing in a flight over the islets in a gesture Tokyo considered provocative.
South Korea last week told four Japanese lawmakers they would not be allowed to visit an island near Dokdo for a fact-finding mission on the dispute.
These days, Kim follows the updates on a TV in a four-story home the government built for him three years ago. After all this time, he says his mission is the same: protecting Dokdo from what he calls Japanese encroachment.
“This island is Korean,” he said, his words coming in a burst of grunts and growls. “The more I think about it, the madder I get.”
When it comes to the island dispute, Japan and South Korea can agree on little, not even the name of the surrounding ocean: Tokyo calls it the Sea of Japan, Seoul the East Sea.
For South Korea, the islets symbolize the resentment that remains over Japanese occupation early last century. Protesters have sliced off fingers, a macabre custom among some activists in Korea to show solidarity. Even North Korea supports Seoul’s claim to Dokdo.
Both nations can point to ancient maps and documents that they say prove ownership of the islets. The modern dispute dates to World War II, when postwar treaties failed to settle sovereignty claims to the islands, which lie in waters rich in marine life and gas deposits.
Half a century after Seoul took possession, Japan still asserts its claims. The Japanese Foreign Ministry website declares the islets “an inherent part of the territory of Japan,” saying South Korea’s occupation has “absolutely no basis in international law.”
The rest of the world seems content to let the two nations hash it out. Meanwhile, most maps use the name Liancourt Rocks, a reference to a French ship that spotted the islets in the 19th century.
Tomohiko Taniguchi, a former spokesman for Japan’s Foreign Ministry and now a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Keio University, says many Japanese believe that South Korea snatched the islets when their nation was weakened from its loss in World War II.
“Most Japanese officials acknowledge those disputed territories are under the effective control of South Korea,” he said. “But that does not mean it’s time to give up the claim.”
South Koreans rave about the islets’ beauty, especially the twin peaks often clouded in an ethereal mist. On the rare days when rough seas permit, tourist boats unload retirees who want to see the islets one time before they die.
Many ask to shake fisherman Kim’s hand. “He lives right on the front lines,” said one boat captain. “He’s our ambassador, even if he’s a little rough around the edges.”
Shucking oysters, Kim Shin-yeol describes her response to her husband’s suggestion that they move to Dokdo all those years ago. “I said no way; I’m not raising my children on any deserted island,” she recalled.
So her husband went alone as she raised their family on the closest island, 100 miles away. She joined him on Dokdo a decade ago when their daughter and two sons were grown.
Always a loner, Kim relished his reclusive life, but so much time alone has made him irascible. Many say there’s still a bit of the caveman left in him from those early days.
One day recently, he gazed across the water at a boat that disgorged scores of wide-eyed tourists and a new squad of police, who rotate through duty here every two months. Some carried guitars to while away the lonely nights.
Kim sniffed. The visitors only make him nervous. When the boats come, he usually retreats.
“It’s been a great life: quiet and serene with no one around to bother me,” he said. “I go to Seoul now and then and am bothered by being around so many people.”
But the most bothersome, he says, are Japanese fishermen who sometimes appear seeking help after breakdowns.
“My husband didn’t want to talk to them, but knew if he didn’t help, they’d have to stay, so he did it with a heavy heart,” said Shin-yeol.
She said the trade-off for her husband’s peace of mind has been a hardscrabble and often dangerous life. Water, for instance, has been an obsession.
For one, there was never enough drinking water. The old rope was long ago replaced by an impossibly steep set of stairs up the rock face to reach the spring. The climb was tiring and only recently has the government provided running water.
But the biggest threat has always been the sea. Winter storms can rage for days, with the waves crashing onto the first floor of their home, making them scramble to the top story.
“I’ve been scared so many times,” she said. “But I tell myself that one day soon the sea will be calm again.”
With a modern police presence that now includes patrol boats and lookout towers, Kim’s vigilance on Dokdo is less necessary. But nobody should tell him that.
“The Japanese boats stay away these days,” he said, scowling. “But if they try to come any closer, I’ll be here waiting.”
Jung-yoon Choi of The Times’ Seoul bureau contributed to this report.