Two rivers, one border dispute
On Dec. 3, 1885, delegates from both the Joseon and Qing dynasties climbed Mount Baekdu to solve a border demarcation dispute. At the mountain’s summit they found a demarcation stone placed there in 1712 by representatives from both their countries. The stone declared that the Tomun River was the border between the two kingdoms.
But a simple pronunciation difference caused the matter to remain unresolved. The Chinese claimed that the stone was referring to the Tumen River - a separate river south of the Tomun River. While in Chinese “Tumen” and “Tomun” are pronounced virtually the same, the words are distinct in Korean. Joseon’s chief delegate, Lee Joong-ha, therefore insisted that the border was at the Tomun River in the north, while the Chinese said it should be at the Tumen. The area in between the two rivers is known as Gando.
Another talk between the nations was held in 1887, with both countries sticking to their previous positions. In 1904, both parties concluded a provisional treaty in which they stated “the issue of border demarcation should conform to the former provisions until the two parties reconsider the matter after conducting field investigations.”
In 1909, Japan - which had deprived Korea of its diplomatic rights - signed the Gando Convention with China in an effort to expand its control in Manchuria. Japan accepted the Qing’s 1887 argument about the demarcation and the Tumen River became the official border.
Therefore, it is nonsense if some say that we lost the Gando territory after the conclusion of the Gando Convention, because the Joseon and Qing governments were unable to resolve the borders in their previous meetings.
The controversy is rooted in the fact that no appropriate investigation was conducted when the countries set up the demarcation stone in 1712. The area was a wasteland at the time, and government officials trying to avoid undertaking hardship didn’t carry out proper surveys.
Almost 300 years later, both parties forgot all about the 1712 stone in Baekdu.
The Gando Convention has no effect today, because the Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty in 1905 proved to be invalid and the Chinese government annulled all previous treaties it concluded with imperial Japan.
The current national boundary was demarcated according to a border treaty between North Korea and China in 1962. The treaty set the border at the Tumen River.
It may be helpful for one’s mental health to recall only what one wants to remember. However, it will cause harm to international relations as well as human relations if we forget the past. It’s imperative to keep a clear perspective of history to tackle China’s historical distortions and the Dokdo issues.
The writer is a research professor at the Center for Hospital History and Culture at the Seoul National University Hospital.
By Jeon Woo-yong