[Writer's Choice] Widow is Sole Resident of Remote Island

Jay Yim, Feb. 15, 2019, 5:17 p.m.


In 1991, a women Kim Sin Yeon, 81, and her husband made the odd decision to move to a remote island at the heart of a ongoing territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea.

The Dokdo Islands, which is currently adminstered by Seoul, are located in the East Sea, according to South Korea. Japan, however, claims the islands as Takeshima and their surrounding waters as the Sea of Japan.

For years now, the couple have been the only permanent residents on the island, although other people, such as policemen, lighthouse operators and tourists, would visit time to time.

Bad weather can isolate the islands from the outside world for weeks, but the waters surrounding it are a rich fishing ground. Kim, who is originally from Jeju Island, worked as a "haenyeo", which is a traditional, female freediver, until 2017 when her poor health forced her to quit.

Since her husband's death, Kim Sung Do, last October, the 81-year-old widow has been the only permanent resident on the volcanic islands.

Her loss, however, has not inspired any plans to move out of the islands.

"She said living on Dokdo is relaxing," said her son-in-law, Kim Kyung Chul. "Being there, her mind is at ease."

Disputes about the islands have produced soured tense relations between Japan and South Korea, whose relationship is stilled tainted by imperial Japan's occupation and colonization of the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century.

Japan says that the South is illegally occupying the islands, which the country claims has been their sovereign territory since the 17th century. South Korea claims that the islands belong to them, dating back to the sixth century, and believed to be home to underwater gas reserves.

South Korea claimed control over the islands in the 1950s, when the country stationed armed guards there.

The islands became 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 the Japanese protested. However, the islands came back months later as part of a unified Korean flag that was drawn into the dessert served at the inter-Korean summit banquet dinner, which led to another Japanese protest.

Although the islands are remote from both countries, it is geographically closer to the Korean Peninsula than Japan and are a tourist attraction for Koreans.

Kim is living with her daughter, Kim Jin Hee, in Pohang until renovations on her secluded island home are finished in April.

While some Koreans have expressed interest in moving to the islands so they can reinforce the ownership, local government officials have said that 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 is detoriorating, however, her daughter and son-in-law are planning to register as permanent residents of the islands.

Kim's daughter plans to sell stamps, soaps and seafood to tourist using a business license she inherited from her late father.

However, their presence on the island is more than just 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."

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