By Cailey Rizzo
February 19, 2019
Choul Jib Lee/Getty Images

An 81-year-old South Korean widow is the only person living on a disputed island in the East Sea.

The Dokdo Islands have been at the center of a battle between Japan and South Korea for more than 300 years. And, at the moment, Kim Sin-yeol is the only person who lives there.

While people like policeman, lighthouse operators, and tourists come and go, Kim is the only human who remains on Dokdo as a permanent resident.

She has lived there since 1991, when she moved to the disputed island with her husband. He died last October, but Kim has no plans to move. “She said living on Dokdo is relaxing,” her son-in-law, Kim Kyung-chul, told CNN. “Being there, her mind is at ease.”

But Kim’s home island is at the center of a longstanding dispute. According to Japan, South Korea is illegally occupying the territory, which they call the Takeshima Islands. Japan says it has been sovereign territory since the 17th century. Koreans claim the island have been theirs since the sixth century.

The islands also represent a civic duty to many Koreans. Despite it being a three-hour ferry from the mainland, it’s estimated that more than 160,000 tourists visit the islands every year, although not all of them step foot on the rocks. In the 1950s, Koreans stationed armed guards on the island to cement their control.

“[Koreans] are very protective of their culture and their race—they want to protect whatever they have,” French photographer Tim Franco, who photographed the islands, told National Geographic. “This is one thing that they kept back from World War II and it's very important to them to keep it.”

Kim’s is the only home on the island — and the Korean government does not plan to encourage others to move there. According to them, there is only room for one permanent household on Dokdo. And Kim’s daughter and son-in-law are planning to move in soon.

“It's a symbol that civilians continue to reside on the Dokdo Islands,” Kim Jin-hee, Kim’s daughter, told CNN. “We never even once thought about leaving the Dokdo Islands.”

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