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Waterway Stirs Passion in S. Korea

South Korean tourists are on a tour of Seodo, part of the disputed Dokdo islets, in the East Sea, August 1, 2011

South Korean tourists are on a tour of Seodo, part of the disputed Dokdo islets, in the East Sea, August 1, 2011

Passions have flared again in South Korea over the naming of the body of the water separating the Korean peninsula and Japan. But South Korean anger regarding the controversy is now being directed not only at Japan, but also at the United States.

US caught in middle of controversary

The United States is finding itself under criticism from officials and the news media here for restating a long-standing policy of referring to the waters between Japan and the Koreas as the Sea of Japan.

South Korean media say Seoul’s strong concern was among the matters raised this week in Washington when the visiting presidential national security adviser met with White House and State Department counterparts in the U.S. government.

The issue reignited in South Korea when U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner, on Monday, answered a question about why the American government does not also refer to the waters as the “East Sea.” “The U.S uses names decided by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. And the U.S. so-called BGN standard name for that body of water is the Sea of Japan,” he stated.

Newspaper editorials throughout the week criticized the United States for siding with the Japanese, the former colonial occupier of Korea.

One newspaper, referencing the delicate trilateral relationship among Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, said America’s spurning of Korean passions about this matter has made most Koreans feel like lousy losers in a love triangle.

South Korea’s foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan, has been criticized by some politicians in the governing party for not pushing the matter forcefully enough.

On Friday, Kim said he is aware of that criticism. He emphasized it is an important issue in order to clear away the remnants of Japanese rule, which ended in August, 1945.

Kim points out that common usage of the Sea of Japan only began in the 1920’s, when a colonized Korea did not have sovereignty.

East Sea vs Sea of Japan

South Korea ultimately wants the name East Sea to be exclusively used, he explains. But Seoul recognizes that the Sea of Japan moniker is being widely used and would accept, for now, both names being used concurrently.

The United States, however, has a single-name policy for geographical entities. The United Nations encourages dual names when such matters are in dispute.

For some on the Korean peninsula, recognizing the waters as the East Sea would not go far enough. They point to centuries-old documents, include old Japanese maps, that refer to it as the Sea of Korea.

The naming matter will be on the table at next April’s meeting of the 80-nation International Hydrographic Organization.