The islands, administered by South Korea but claimed by Japan, provide a window into Asia’s fastest-growing problem, the fight over small bits of land that have oversize and symbolic importance.
In the case of these islands, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, the show of Korean control is pushed to extremes: Only two non-government employees live here, a fisherman and his wife, both Koreans. But three South Korean telecommunications companies provide the islands with 3G cellphone service.
The notion of symbolic control has grown increasingly important in recent months amid a region-wide surge of nationalism and upcoming political leadership changes in South Korea, Japan and China. As a result, countries that once played down territorial disputes now use them to foment national pride. These small islands have become dangerous friction points between Asia’s most economically linked countries, with all sides calling their claims irrefutable and just, and brushing aside the idea of compromise.
The fierce dispute between Japan and China over islands in the East China Sea has spurred fears about potential armed conflict, but the dispute over Dokdo has levied a toll of its own. It has stalled military cooperation between Washington’s two closest Asian allies and reignited historical animosities that date back to Japan’s brutal land grab in the region before World War II.
The South Korean government took a dozen foreign journalists to the islands Thursday to underscore its claims. The day started in Seoul at a just-opened downtown Dokdo museum and continued later with a three-hour flight to the islands in time for lunch at the cafeteria, which normally serves the national police who live here on two-month rotations.
Dokdo consists of two main islands and a handful of rocky droplets, which do little more than break waves. The taller of the two, with a razor-sharp backbone, is home to the fisherman and his wife, who catch octopus and live in a three-story house — paid for by the provincial government — along the shore.
“It’s not as big as it looks,” the fisherman, Kim Sung-do, said. “The top floor is all water tanks” for storing drinkable water.
A handful of people have lived on the island on and off since the 1960s. Kim once worked for a fisherman who lived there, and he and his wife have been residents since 1981.
The stouter of the main islands has a helicopter pad, a lighthouse, a weight room, a small branch of the South Korean national library and a dormitory. Forty-five police officers live here, as do two civil servants and three lighthouse attendants. There are no women. There is one dog, named Seodo.