1781 Globe at the Chateau de Versailles: G. de Coree (Sea of Korea)


How to name the sea between the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese islands has been subject to disputes between the concerned governments for some time now. The Japanese government prefers it to be named as the Sea of Japan, and their international dominance during its imperial expansion period from the late 19th century led to the consolidation of this name in a number of historical archives. When the International Hydrographic Bureau (IHB) was established in 1921 (later re-named as the International Hydrographic Organisation), it published its first resolution on the “Limits of Oceans and Seas” that adopted the inclusion of Japan’s preferred name, Sea of Japan. Korea did not get a chance to voice out at this time and in subsequent years due to the country’s colonial occupation by the Japanese (1910-1945) and the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953).

Obviously, the two Koreas, North and South, on the Korean peninsula are strongly against the use of the name Sea of Japan, as they believe the sea had been long known as the Eastern Sea, East Sea or Sea of Korea (with a couple of variances such as Coree or Corea). This claim is justified when one examines numerous historical archives published hundreds of years ago. For example, on my recent visit to the Palace of Versailles (Chateau de Versailles), I happened to notice a huge globe, located in the Dauphin’s Study attached to one of the wings of the palace (pictured above). Apparently, this was a terrestrial and celestial globe, commissioned by the then King Louis XVI for his son’s education in 1781. It is impressively accurate in terms of its delineation of coastal lines and countries, all clearly marked and expressed in letters. And, I also found out on the East Asian part of the globe that the sea is vividly named as the G. de Coree (or Sea of Coree). The French had a good sense of geography back in the 18th century.

Clearly, how the sea is going to be officially called and internationally known has a number of implications. People’s adherence to one particular name represents their nationalistic sentiment, and this is reflected in the way the dispute is being handled. The naming issue has also become more complicated due to the territorial conflict over the ownership of Korea’s Dokdo island located in the middle of the sea. The Japanese government has been challenging this ownership for some time now, evidently having a great interest in the territorial expansion that its successful claim might lead to. These conflicts seem to negate the hypothesis that the territorial boundary becomes meaningless in the globalising world. While the increasing volume of international travel and transnational investment brings the world together and allow room for mutual understanding, globalisation has also engendered nationalism, neo-imperial expansion to capture resources (c.f. agro-imperialism), heightened barriers against international migration and so on.

Ultimately, the dispute over the naming of the sea between the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese islands stem from the lack of historical understanding of how the sea has been shared by the people in the region before the rise of Japanese imperialism. It is also the result of lack of consensus on how to understand the colonial occupation of the two Koreas by the Japanese in the early 20th century. It is perhaps timely here to remind us that Japan still owes North Korea reparations for their colonial occupation and exploitation. Without resolving these issues, the dispute over the naming of the sea as well as any other territorial conflicts between the two Koreas and Japan would continue. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see how this is ever going to be resolved in any near future.

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