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Heavy Controversy over East Sea or Sea of Japan

Posted May. 03, 2004 20:51,   


The oval sea, surrounded by the Korean peninsula, Russia and Japan, stretches 1,700 kilometers from north to south and 1,100 kilometers from east to west. Korea calls this body of water the East Sea while Japan calls it the Sea of Japan.

The controversy can be traced back to a brochure, “Limits of Oceans and Seas,” published by the International Hydrographic Organization in 1929 that indicated the sea as the Sea of Japan. In 1953 a new edition came out while Korea was in the middle of the Korean War. During the interim, the world has used the Sea of Japan, based on the IHO brochure. As a result, the Sea of Korea and the Sea of Chosun, which had been used in old maps, vanished from modern world maps.

However, the issue is at a crossroads as the 22nd conference of United Nations Conferences on the Standardization of Geographical Names has recommended bi- or multilateral solutions to the standardization of graphic names. This was the first-of-its kind proposal by the UN to seek a bilateral solution to the issue of the East Sea, which would help prop up Korean demands that the Sea of Japan and the East Sea should be used together at least.

With the third edition of “Limits of Oceans and Seas” due to be out soon, the East Sea is facing what could be the last chance to restore itself as an internationally recognized geographic name.

Korea’s ultimate goal is a full reinstatement of the East Sea as a recognized geographic name. However, given the fact that the Sea of Japan has been widely used internationally, its immediate goal is to have the two names co-exist.

At a number of international conferences since it joined the UN in 1991, Korea’s plea has fallen on Japanese deaf ears.

In 2002, the IHO demanded the two countries reach an agreement as it geared itself for the third edition of the brochure. It once said, “We will omit the name of the sea in question or the entire page designated for the sea altogether.” The IHO unsuccessfully attempted to put the issue to a vote as it faced pitched lobbies against the vote. The brochure has yet to come out while the 1953 edition of the map is still in use.

North Korea, which has once argued for “East Sea of Korea,” began to demand the same revision as the South two years ago. In its Korean-language maps, it indicates the sea as the East Sea of Korea. Russia and China support Seoul’s position. Civilian experts, who have little political interest in the issue, are at least supportive of the co-existence of the East Sea and the Sea of Japan.

“Two years ago, the IHO admitted that the exclusive use of the Sea of Japan” is problematic and it went further in demanding a solution to the two countries.” Prof. Lee Ki-seok at the department of geography education of Seoul National University. “The level of international consciousness about the issue has been broadened.”

Japan’s no-response has changed. It said it would negotiate with Korea for the first time. The first meeting is scheduled for May 17 in Seoul.

“At a meeting in Seoul last year, the Japanese repeatedly said they were not here to negotiate,’ Ha Chan-ho, a diplomatic representative of Korea’s permanent mission to the UN, said. “They now have to be aware of criticism that they have ignored the UN’s proposals.”

What’s behind Japan’s change of heart is that a rising number of map and travel guide publishers and Web sites began to use both the Sea of Japan and the East Sea in the past two years.

Smi Sigeki, Japan’s delegate to the UNCSGN said “the use of the East Sea by some map publishers is wrong. We won’t overlook this.”

“Japan is using all its diplomatic efforts,” said many international delegates, commenting on recent Japanese efforts.

Two years ago, when the IHO attempted to organize a vote, the Japanese media raised public concerns in the country by saying, “the Sea of Japan is vanishing from the world map.” The Japanese government moved swiftly as well. Precisely because of them, the French defense department and sea travel bureau began to use both the East Sea and the Sea of Japan in 2003, but began to use only the Sea of Japan starting this year.

The controversy continuously unfolded as the Korean government and activists are increasing the international use of the East Sea while Japanese protests and lobbies are reclaiming the Sea of Japan.

The IHO, which could not publish the brochure in the past year, is in the final stage of publishing it. “We will circulate the galley version among members soon,” the IHO said.

“This is our last opportunity,” Prof. Lee said. “If the new brochure does not indicate the sea as the East Sea, the change will be very unlikely.”

Kwon-Heui Hong konihong@donga.com