Known in Korea as Dokdo (Solitary Island) and in Japan as Takeshima (Bamboo Island), this group of disputed islets in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) administered by South Korea is known in English as The Liancourt Rocks. The islets are largely uninhabitable as they are mostly rocky with a total land area of just 0.18 square kilometers. But when Japan claimed the islands, the ensuing upsurge of anger resulted in a mother and son slicing off their own fingers and a man setting himself on fire.
The islands may have been first conquered by Korea as long ago as the 6th century, but Japan claims that this was a different island, or even a non-existent one. Korea formally claimed the rocks in 1900, with Japan doing the same five years later. The rocks have been known by various names over the years, further clouding the issue of sovereignty. The English name comes from Le Liancourt, a French whaling ship that nearly crashed on the island in 1849. Though the tiny islands may seem irrelevant, the ownership is crucial to claiming the maritime boundary and the fishing and resource rights that accompany it.
There are currently only two permanent residents on the island, Korean nationals Kim Seong Do, an octopus farmer, and wife Kim Shin Yeol. They are assisted by various support staff including 37 policemen and three lighthouse keepers. But Sung-do died in 2018, and now Shin-yeol is the only one left. The island was off-limits to tourists for many years, but now over 100,000 tourists visit the island every year. There was even a wedding on the islands in 2005.
On February 22, 2005, Japan’s Shimane prefecture announced a “Takeshima Day” to celebrate 100 years of the annexation of the islands. Such action caused fury in Korea, where the memory of the brutal Japanese occupation still lingers. As well as the aforementioned self-mutilation and immolation, Koreans protested their anger by decapitating pheasants outside the Japanese Embassy.
The issue is not one likely to be resolved soon, but South Korea can count on support from an unlikely source. In a rare and unexpected move, rival North Korea has supported South Korea’s claim to the islands.
Know Before You Go
The nearest land is Korean island Ulleung-do at a distance of 87 km. The nearest mainland is South Korea, 217 km to the west. Japan is 250 km to the south.