Fisherman Kim Seong-do, 72, eyes the horizon as he circles the inhospitable… (Matt Douma, For The Times )
Reporting from Dokdo, South Korea — 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."