The Korea Herald

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[Editorial] East Sea or Sea of Korea?

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Published : Aug. 15, 2011 - 19:04

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Various arguments are presented in the disputes between nations over geographical names. One can cite legal, political, traditional, historical and academic grounds to justify a preferred name for a certain place.

The name of a sea, a gulf or a strait has little legal importance, as it rarely involves territorial rights. This is the reason why such names as the Gulf of Mexico between the United States, Mexico and Cuba and the Timor Sea between Timor and Australia are not disputed. The strait between Britain and France is rather peacefully called the English Channel by English-speaking people and la Manche by francophones. Most problematic was the dispute between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Gulf on which the U.N. confirmed the former in 2006.

The body of water east of the Korean Peninsula has long been called the East Sea or the Sea of Korea (Sea of Corea or Coree in foreign maps). The Chinese used the same name because it is to the east of the continent. Numerous ancient maps, including some used by the Japanese, have been discovered with the designations of the East Sea or Sea of Korea.

Calling the sea between the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese Archipelago “Sea of Japan” represents a political logic, or an imperialistic one. Following its annexation of Korea in 1910, Japan proposed the use of the name “Sea of Japan” to the International Hydrographic Organization, which printed the name in its first edition of the Limits of Oceans and Seas in 1929. The IHO in 2000 suggested no official designation of the waters between Korea and Japan until a compromise is reached, but Japan opposed the move.

Rep. Lee Jae-oh proposed last week to use the name “Sea of Korea” instead of East Sea, believing that the former will be easier for neutral third parties to accept. Korea can henceforth ask the IHO and the international community to use both names. It somewhat sounds reasonable but it is admitting a weakness in the logic we have used in all these years of campaigning for East Sea.

“East Sea” is the word that starts the national anthem of Korea and it is the name most familiar to Koreans. We should not suddenly depart from our tradition just for the convenience’s sake in dealing with international society. We may continue to point out the absurdity of “Sea of Japan” to refer to waters shared by four nations.