SOUTH KOREA — In 1991, Kim Sin-yeol and her husband made the unusual decision to move to a lonely outcrop of islands at the heart of a long-standing territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea.
Currently administered by Seoul, the Dokdo Islands are located in the the East Sea, according to South Korea. Japan, however, calls the islands Takeshima and refers to their surrounding waters as the Sea of Japan.
For years, the couple were the tiny islands’ only permanent residents, although other people, such as policeman, lighthouse operators and tourists, would periodically come and go.
Bad weather could cut the islands off from the outside world for weeks, but their surrounding waters were a rich fishing ground. Kim, who is originally from Jeju Island, worked as a “haenyeo” — a traditional, female freediver — until 2017 when poor health caused her to quit.
But since the death of her husband, Kim Sung-do, last October, the 81-year-old has been the only permanent resident on the volcanic islands.
Her loss has not inspired any plans to move.
“She said living on Dokdo is relaxing,” said her son-in-law, Kim Kyung-chul. “Being there, her mind is at ease.”
The disputed islands have long soured tense relations between the two historical adversaries, whose relationship is still colored by imperial Japan’s occupation and colonization of the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century.
Japan says that South Korea is illegally occupying the rocky islands, which it claims have been its sovereign territory since the 17th century. South Korea says its claim to the islands, believed to be home to underwater gas reserves, dates back to the sixth century.
South Korea cemented its control over the islands in the 1950s, when it stationed armed guards there.
The islands were a recent diplomatic flashpoint when, during the South Korean Winter Olympics, a banner in the opening ceremony depicted them as part of the Korean Peninsula.
The flag was altered after a Japanese protest, but the islands made a reappearance months later as part of a unified Korean flag drawn onto the dessert served at an inter-Korean summit banquet dinner, leading to a formal Japanese protest.
While remote from both countries, the islands are geographically closer to the Korean mainland than Japan and are a tourist destination for Koreans.
Kim is living with her daughter Kim Jin-hee in Pohang, on mainland Korea’s southeast coast, until renovations on her secluded island home are finished in April.
While other Koreans have expressed interested in moving to the islands to reinforce their nation’s ownership of the territory, local government officials say there are no plans to encourage more people to move there.
“There is only a space for one household to stay (as) residents there,” said a government official.
As Kim’s health falters, however, her daughter and son-in-law are planning to register as permanent residents of the isolated islands and live with the octogenarian.
Using a business license she inherited from her father, the younger Kim plans to sell stamps, soaps and seafood to tourists who make the four-hour ferry ride from the mainland.
But the expanded family presence is more than a business opportunity.
“It’s a symbol that civilians continue to reside on the Dokdo Islands,” said Kim Jin-hee. “We never even once thought about leaving the Dokdo Islands.”