SEOUL — The body of water to the east of the Korean peninsula will continue to be a source of frustration for South Koreans and a sensitive subject for U.S. military officials.
The international organization in charge of naming water bodies around the world this week rejected South Korea’s request that the Sea of Japan be alternately known as the East Sea.
“Our country asserted that both names be used … but Japan insisted that only the term ‘Sea of Japan’ be used,” according to an official with the South’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “Other countries advised us that the two countries should come to some sort of agreement to resolve the issue.”
But the International Hydrographic Organization does not meet again until 2017, meaning Sea of Japan will continue to be recognized as the sole designation for the body of water that separates Japan and the Korean peninsula, much to the dismay of South Koreans.
“It’s just a matter of time,” said the ministry official, who requested his name not be used. “We know we will eventually get the IHO member countries’ support on the issue.
“When they see the historical reasons, the international practices and the fact that the term ‘East Sea’ is being used a lot in reality, we think using both terms … will eventually be approved,” he continued. “We’ll keep trying until we succeed.”
Koreans bristle at references to the Sea of Japan, something they believe is an outdated designation left over from a dark period in their history when their homeland was a Japanese colony.
In fact, the first line of South Korea’s national anthem even asks that, “God protect and preserve our country … until that day when Mount Baekdu’s worn away and the East Sea’s waters run dry.”
The name of the sea has been the subject of a rare public disagreement between South Korea and the U.S military, which continues to use the internationally recognized designation “Sea of Japan” in all maps, plans and correspondence it shares with its South Korea counterparts, according to policy.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said previously, “We wish that the U.S. used only ‘the East Sea.’ But, if that’s too hard to do, we want the U.S. to at least use both names.
“We’ve asked … them about it frequently, and whenever the subject comes up, the problem is still not fixed,” she said.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ standard name for the body of water is the Sea of Japan, U.S. Forces Korea spokesman Col. Jonathan Withington said in an interview last month.
“This is a long-standing U.S. policy that we apply all around the globe,” he said. “We understand that the Republic of Korea uses a different term.”
The IHO, which has 68 member nations, publishes the “Limits of Oceans and Seas,” considered the world authority on the names of all seas and oceans. It met this week in Monaco to, among other things, review its sea and ocean designations.
Japanese officials contend the body of water dividing the two countries has been called the Japan Sea, or Sea of Japan, for centuries, and it makes sense to name it after their country because it laps up against a far greater amount of Japanese coastline than Korean coastline.
South Korean officials counter that in the years leading up to the IHO’s issuance of its initial “Limits of Oceans and Seas” in 1929, their country was under Japan’s rule and could not oppose its request to call the body of water the Sea of Japan.