Posted : 2012-04-30 17:27
Updated : 2012-04-30 17:27

No sea change for East Sea

By Andrew Salmon

Talk about news of earth-shaking international importance. In Monaco last week, the International Hydrographic Organization ― the body that sets official geographic place names for maps ― rejected Korea’s demand to add ``East Sea” alongside ``Sea of Japan” when denoting the body of water dividing the nations. The exclusive use of “Sea of Japan” will continue through 2017 ― when the debate re-opens.

Surprisingly, the IHO decision has not sparked editorial rants, demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy, self-appointed ``PR gurus” buying up ad space in U.S. newspapers or ex-Korean special agents shooting fire arrows into Monaco’s royal palace.

Why ``surprisingly?” Well, the naming debate is an issue that many Koreans get extraordinarily hot under the collar about.

Let’s get some international perspective. For almost a century, ``Sea of Japan” has been the most common, official designation. For nations, academic institutions and publishers worldwide to change the name in maps, atlases and other publications would require major efforts and investments. Thus, any argument for change must be rock solid.

I live in Korea, am married to a local and (generally) like Korea. I have no relationship with Japan. In short, I am readier to sympathize with Korea’s case. Yet this country’s arguments are not compelling to me, nor ― to judge from non-Korean friends’ reactions ― the wider international audience.

Korea’s primary argument seems to be that historically, the body of water was more widely dubbed ``East Sea.” This is problematic: Plenty of international maps dating back to the 17th century mark it ``Sea of Japan.” Korea says that among old maps in the US Library of Congress, 66 percent use ``East Sea.” Japan, having surveyed the same materials, insists 77 percent use ``Sea of Japan.”

And this argument is not just questionable, it is irrelevant. This is the 21st century, not the Joseon Kingdom; this is a geographic issue, not a historical one. No international principle that I know of suggests a return to pre-modern place names; there is plenty of logic against it. Should Iraq revert to Mesopotamia? Iran to Persia? Should Seoul rename itself Keijo, Hanseong, or Wiryeseong?

Speaking of history, I am tired of Koreans preaching about how non-Koreans must learn ``right” or ``correct” history. What they actually mean is ``Koreans’ interpretation of history,” for history is not science, and beyond certain basic facts, historical events and trends are open to interpretation. I have yet to read an article in the local press that acknowledges opposing arguments ― the practice seems to be, ``Ignore them, and restate the Korean side.”

This is a poor model for debate. Moreover, as a debate, the issue lacks longevity. Korea became independent of Japan in 1945, but (as far as I am aware), the sea name dispute arose only in 1997 ― i.e. 52 years after a 35-year colonial rule.

Another argument is that Koreans called it ``East Sea” for longer than non-Koreans called it ``Sea of Japan,” and some point out that “East Sea” features in South Korea’s national anthem. Fine. Koreans are welcome to call the body of water to their east anything they like on their maps, books and songs. But why should the rest of the world follow suit?

Others argue that the sea was dubbed ``Sea of Japan” as a result of Japan’s colonization, or at a time when Korea was under Japanese rule, so could not argue. This is only partly the case, as pre-modern maps prove. What is unquestionable is that Japan’s brand enjoyed higher visibility than Korea’s in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; Japan, under Meiji, opened, modernized and became a regional and world power. No name-change on maps can erase that.

And some fret that ``Sea of Japan” undermines Korea’s ownership of Dokdo. This argument is so empty of precedent or logic that it requires no refutation.

As I see it, the real reason Koreans want a name change is simple. Nationalism is a powerful emotive force in Northeast Asia in general and in Korea in particular. A cornerstone of Korean nationalism is distrust, dislike or hatred of Japan. This, I think, is the real force behind the ``East Sea” campaign.

Alas, self-righteous, introspective campaigning on grounds of wounded national pride wins few international allies or votes. On the contrary, a low-key, restrained approach may be more effective. Japan has certainly been a less aggressive advocate. Seoul sent a 16-man delegation to the IHO; Tokyo just nine. A search of Google news finds over 30 Korean reports, but just one from Japan.

While Korea’s consumer exports, pop culture products and tourism marketing win friends around the world, I am willing to bet that nationalist emoting does not. If the ``East Sea” issue can be laid to rest, and Koreans refocus on national, rather than nationalist agendas, so much the better.

However, I don’t see that happening: Too much passion is invested.
So, if you are publicity-seeking academic, grandstanding lawmaker, wannabe ``PR guru” or nationalist crackpot, I suggest a new campaign to unleash the jingoistic furies: ``EAST SEA 2017 – OR WAR!”

Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. Reach him at
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