For millennia, East Asians called the sea located to the east of the Eurasian continent East Sea, and in more recent centuries, Western navigators called it the equivalent of the East Sea or Sea of Korea or Corea. Only from the late 19th century when Japan became an imperial power, did growing political influence lead “Sea of Japan” to overtake “East Sea” in international usage.
Japanese official emphasis on the Sea of Japan is connected with Tokyo’s territorial claim to Dokdo, which it calls Takeshima, the South Korean-held islets located near Ulleungdo in the East Sea. “Sea of Japan” might boost the Japanese justification of its claim on “Takeshima” but Koreans regard both these names as products of Japan’s imperial aggression, which were erased from history at the end of World War II.
For the past 20 years, the International Hydrographic Organization tackled the issue of naming the sea between Korea and Japan in connection with the planned publication of a revised “Limits of Oceans and Seas” that contains the Sea of Japan designation. However, parallel assertions by the two countries involved prevented the organization from finding a way forward.
A working group report submitted to the 18th International Hydrographic Conference opened in Monaco on Monday admitted the futility of its past efforts and suggested the continued use of the six-decade-old 3rd edition of S-23 to prevent damage to the reputation and credibility of the IHO. Still, there is little prospect of resolving the issue at the conference to last until Friday.
In the meantime, a cyber war is raging between Korean and Japanese Internet users in support of the two names since Korean residents of Virginia raised objection to the use of the Sea of Japan designation in U.S. textbooks, filing online petitions to the White House for correction. By last weekend, over 40,000 petitions in support of East Sea and half that number for Sea of Japan reached the White House website, which was downed for hours because of the sudden surge of messages.
We would not speculate on how the U.S. government would respond to the petitions. But we can foresee that the international community would consider changing its practice when its members recognize the “power” of Koreans shown in cyber and real worlds in their steady campaign to have East Sea or the neutral designation of East Sea/Sea of Japan adopted in world maps just as they had accepted the Japanese version upon Japan’s rise in the 19th century.
In the 21st century, Korea is a marine power, holding the distinction as the world’s largest shipbuilding nation; a third of all large vessels plying the oceans were made in Korea, which is also the world’s seventh-largest trading country. Korea was an international leader in deep-sea fishing until the industry shrunk as a result of global protection trends. There is no justification for the international community to accept an inappropriate name for a sea on the Korean coast.
Members of the IHO, U.S. educators and all map readers of the world are reminded that the U.N. Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names recommended in a resolution in 1977 that, if countries are unable to agree upon a single geographical name for geographical areas that are under the sovereignty of, or are partitioned between, two or more countries, the different names in use should all be accepted. It should be noted that the proportion of world maps produced by private companies marked with “East Sea/Sea of Japan” has been steadily rising from 2.8 percent in 2000 to over 30 percent in 2010.