[OBSERVER]East of what?The world marvels at Koreans’ solipsistic obsession that world geography centers on Korea. I refer, of course, to the body of water known to the world as the Sea of Japan, but here called the “East Sea” because it is east of Korea. It is also west of Japan and south of Russia, but only its location relative to Korea matters. Korea has waged an increasingly strident campaign to get the world to fall in line behind Korean usage.
As I say, the world marvels, even laughs. But I do not laugh. I am grateful to Koreans for opening my eyes to a monstrous injustice against my country.
Immediately adjacent to the United States is the ninth-largest body of water in the world, a marvel of sparkling surf and dazzling sands, abundant marine life, commercially exploitable oil and gas, alarming pollution and hurricanes of legendary ferocity. In short, a virtual epitome of the United States ― yet its name has been hijacked by foreigners, who persist in calling it the Gulf of Mexico.
I’m starting a petition drive to remedy this outrage. It should be named the “Yankee Gulf.”
And I’m declaring my solidarity with the legions of Africans, Aussies, Indonesians and others who justly resist the imperialistic designs implied in the so-called “Indian Ocean.”
Also, the oppressed English, forced to live by the “Irish Sea.”
President Roh Moo-hyun, it seems, tried to move past the pointless sterility of the “East Sea” issue. Last November in a meeting with the Japanese leader, Shinzo Abe, he “brainstormed” (the Blue House’s word, stressing that this was not a formal proposal or policy demarche) the idea of finessing the matter by agreeing on something uplifting like “Sea of Friendship” or “Peace Sea” or “Sea of Reconciliation.” Mr. Abe, we are told, made no response.
But in Korea, howls of fury erupted when the conversation was reported. A common theme was that Mr. Roh had surrendered Korean sovereignty over the sea’s name. But of course neither Korea nor any other country has sovereignty over international bodies of water or their names.
The global arbiter of geographic names is the International Hydrographic Organization. In 1928 it first released the volume “Limits of Oceans and Seas” in an attempt to standardize usage. Korea argues that because it was a colony of Japan at the time, it was unable to present a case for “East Sea,” which it insists was the historical name.
The dispute now features selective compilations by Korean and Japanese scholars of old maps. It is hard to say which side has the stronger historical case. Korea points to 17th- and 18th-century charts, many of which refer to the “Sea of Korea” (or “Corea”), and some to the “East Sea” or “Oriental Sea,” with “Sea of Japan” trailing behind. Japan relies on maps released after 1801, during which time, apparently, “Sea of Japan” surpassed the other usages.
North Korea has its own preference: “East Sea of Korea” (Joseon Donghae). The Russian name, Yaponskoe More, translates as “Japanese Sea” and is not controversial in Russia.
Clearly, what jangles Korean nerves is the mention of Japan. Koreans may call the water to the west the “West Sea,” but they don’t care if you use the internationally recognized “Yellow Sea.”
The dispute came home to us at the JoongAng Daily six years ago, when the paper was in its first months and I was the editor. A story in our partner paper, the International Herald Tribune, mentioned the “Sea of Japan.” The telephone lines lighted up with calls from impassioned Koreans threatening a consumer boycott, legal action, public censure and other, direr consequences.
I was thrilled that our fledgling newspaper was so widely read ― until I learned that most of the callers spoke no English. They had not read the paper, only heard by word of mouth about the insult to their honor.
We decided to adopt a style using both names: “East Sea (Sea of Japan).” Apart from the rights and wrongs of the naming dispute, there was the practical matter that most of our readers were non-Koreans who had no idea what or where the “East Sea” was, since the name was not in general use outside of Korea.
The problem remained, however, that the initial offense had been committed not in our paper but in the IHT, which is edited in Paris. We eventually persuaded it to partly follow our lead, and now it (usually) refers to the “Sea of Japan (East Sea).”
There is another body of water halfway around the world, which was named “Persian Gulf” by the Greek geographers Strabo and Ptolemy as early as 300 B.C. It kept that name for 23 centuries until, about 40 years ago, Arabs decided that it should be renamed “Arabian Gulf.” (The Arabs already have their own Arabian Sea, which borders Oman, Iran, Pakistan and India, only the first of which is Arab.)
The issue is now as emotive as the East Sea-Sea of Japan one. Newspapers, including the Herald Tribune, have tried to duck by dropping all qualifiers and referring simply to “the Gulf.” That, of course, is not good enough for Iran, successor to ancient Persia. Last year it stopped distribution of The Economist magazine within Iran for printing a map of the “Gulf” area that left off “Persian.”
Similarly, we might drop the qualifiers and just call the water east of Korea and west of Japan “the Sea.” At any rate, let’s give President Roh credit for trying to summon up the imagination to defuse the dispute. There is so much work to be done in Northeast Asia that it is a shame for Koreans to waste so much effort on symbolic diplomacy.
*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at Yonsei GSIS.
by Harold Piper