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The Seas of Korea

  • onNovember 11, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • byChung Il-keun


Korea is an island nation!

 A brief glance at a map immediately reveals that Korea is not an island nation, but rather a peninsula sitting to the right of China and the Asian continent. Peninsular Korea is located between China and Japan, which is an actual island nation, yet I still insist that Korea is an isle, for reasons that can be found in its historical and political background. Yes, I'm referring to the division of Korea—in the 60 years since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and national division into the North and South in 1953, South Korea has been an island nation.

Let's look at the map again. Korea is a peninsula that extends from south to north, but South Korea's only link to the continent is blocked to the north by the DPRK, leaving the sea as the South's single available outside link. Therefore the sea is the only physical connection to the world for South Koreans. The seas around Korea, which occupy a corner of Northeast Asia, surround the “island nation” from the east, south, and west. Korea has named these the East Sea, South Sea, and West Sea (Yellow Sea), respectively.

Korea is a very small country, yet surprisingly the three seas surrounding it have completely different traits. These three seas are so distinct from one another that the people who make a living from them are equally distinct. What these seas all have in common, however, is a desire to interact with the world. All the world's oceans have been mediums of communication and interaction, yet this is more so for Korea, as the South’s only terrestrial link to the continent has been severed.

Sunrise Coast of the East Sea
To Korea's east is the East Sea, across from which is Japan. This is also the body of water which Korea calls the East Sea and which Japan refers to as the Sea of Japan.

The East Sea is located at the westernmost end of the Pacific Ocean, so fish ranging about the Pacific also stop here as well. Salmon are one good example because they are a species ranging across the North Pacific. Salmon laying eggs in Alaska also do so near the East Sea coast. Whales, those great mammals that make their homes in the vastness of the Pacific, appear frequently in the East Sea, particularly in the waters off Ulsan. There was a poet who liked to endlessly recite poetry whenever they appeared: 

If you suddenly long for the sea / You were probably a whale in your previous life / For me, 'whale' is a synonym for love / Both love and whales swimming in the sea are mammals / Whenever their hearts are filled with longing / Suddenly, urgently, they push their heads above the horizon.

"For My Whale," from the collection On Waiting by Chung Il-keun
(Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd., 2009)

The East Sea is similar to the ocean proper. The continental shelf near the coast is narrow with a steep slope, leading to nautical depths of over 3,000 meters. The East Sea coastline is uncluttered, possessing just a few islands. As a result, the waves are high because they form in the deep sea, unhindered by any obstacles until they reach the coast.

To Koreans, the sun rises in the East Sea, so this body of water has always symbolized their hopes and dreams. That is why on New Year's Day many Koreans visit famous vantage points to take in the East Sea sunrise. The sun, which blazes forth from the depths of the East Sea, infuses Koreans with life:

 Deep-sea fishermen straddling the clouds / They’re reeling in a big fish / Madly thrashing its tail / The fish splashes water everywhere / Hooked between its gills, a little blood is visible / It's said that not even a sliver of light can penetrate the depths of the sea / So how was the fish caught with its luminous coiled body / Swimming a thousand leagues under the sea / Tranquilly to and fro.

"Deep Sea Fish," from the collection Ripple by Kim Myungin
(Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd., 2005)


1. Flowerhead
Kim Myung-in, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2009, 121p, ISBN 9788932020013

2. Ripple
Kim Myung-in, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2005, 116p, ISBN 9788932016146

3. On Waiting
Chung Il-keun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2009, 127p, ISBN 9788932019413

The sunrise on the East Sea inspired Kim Myungin, born in a small seaside village at the southern tip of this body of water, to write the poem above—such is the solemnity and magnificence of the East Sea sunrise. The poet describes the sunrise and the fish living in the cloud-covered sea in terms of raising something up. "Hooked between its gills, blood" is visible, while "The fish splashes water" as the sun pierces the sea and rises out of the water. Mankind bows its head before the grandeur of nature. To Koreans, the East Sea is the subject of worship and respect:

Going out to set fish traps / Whenever the waves rise and fall, a small fishing boat / Raises its bow high before plunging into the waves / … / When seen from land, the horizon looks like a long line / But beyond these tens of thousands of overlapping furrows, land surely exists / After riding the billows, like a grandmother, like the red sunset / In this place where birds on their maiden flight sometimes plunge into the sea to their doom.

"Furrow" from the collection Flowerhead by Kim Myungin
(Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd., 2009)

People Live in the South Sea
The South Sea has so many islands that it is sometimes referred to as the “Sea of Many Islands.” Thanks to this jumbled southern coastal scenery, there are two marine national parks in this region. The South Sea coastline is as complicated as that of the west coast. Large and small bays of various shapes undulate inland and back out again to create the coastline. Among countless bays, countless harbors are located.

The South Sea is Korea's most famous fishery because the high salinity and water temperature in this area provide ideal conditions for fish to lay eggs and raise their young. That is why aquaculture has existed in the South Sea since antiquity. From laver to abalone, soft-shell clams, and flounder, and nowadays even tuna, can be raised in these waters. The South Sea is abundantly full with things to eat.

 While the sea is abundant, those making a living from it don't live in affluence. Novelist Han Changhoon is better than anyone at conveying the true voice of those living such exhausting lives. He lives alone on Geomun-do (island), which is two-and-a-half hours away from the port of Yeosu by boat. Born in Geomun-do, after finishing school he wandered about aimlessly on the mainland for around 20 years before returning home in 2006. Since his return, he has spent his days fishing, drinking, writing, and living in solitude. Perhaps this is why his tales are not related even in the slightest to island stories filled with romantic vistas. In fact, island dweller Han Changhoon might be the only one on Earth capable of crafting the following lines:

 Islands are not easy places for falling in love or for getting married in. Although island life is tolerable for men, there is a great shortage of women. If one were to select the world's most beautiful island, the first condition would be a place where women want to live. On the other hand, mainlanders come to islands dreaming of love. Men and women who have fallen in love come out here, while others come here and fall in love... Once love has blossomed, fights soon follow. Marriage relations are marked by the process in which the man yells first, followed by the woman. So when island men feel an argument is getting out of hand, they hop on a boat and head out to sea, and their wives let them. For fishermen, the sea is a place where they can earn something.

from When Exhausted, Go to the Sea by Han changhoon(Munhakdongne Publishing Corp., 2010), p. 337

Like a poor fisherman's diary, Han Changhoon's stories of the sea are sincere, concerned with life and the desperate struggle for survival. The South Sea is a sea of mankind:

Here the road begins and ends with the sea. Wild winds crash against the cliffs and dissipate. The rocks cry... In fact, the fishing boats that departed are now coming in one after the other. People here depart for a horizontal world at dawn, and return to vertical houses at dusk. An island rising out of the middle of the ocean—life is maintained at the intersection between the two, like a cormorant flying level before suddenly diving.

from Han Changhoon's Feast by Han changhoon
(Joongang Books, 2009), p. 98

Tidal Flats of the Yellow Sea
Koreans refer to the West Sea as the Yellow Sea because its water is turbid rather than blue. It is a shallow sea lying between China and Korea, which is why the sand on the ocean floor gets stirred up by the high and low tides, clouding the water.

Korea's West Sea is one of the world's important natural resources as one of the five largest tidal flats in the world is located sited, in the West Sea. In South Korea alone, there are about 2,489 sq. km of tidal flats, and about 5,400 sq. km when North Korea is taken into account. No other place in the world has such widespread tidal flats. Although Korea's land mass is small, its tidal flats are large. Strictly speaking, tidal flats are part of the ocean, legally defined as "Public Water Surfaces." When the tide comes in, the flats become part of the sea, but when the tide goes out, they become land again. Thus tidal flats have an ambiguous identity:

The legal ownership of tidal flats belongs to nations, therefore the term “public” in Public Water Surface actually means that the state has sole ownership, rather than the shared ownership implied in the word “public.” Therefore coastal residents making a living from aquaculture or fishing around tidal flats have no right to make a profit because those seas are owned exclusively by the state.

from Bicycle Trip 2 by Kim Hoon
(Thinking Tree Publishing Co., 2007), p. 85

 Just as author Kim Hoon mentioned, West Sea fishermen who depend on the tidal flats for their livelihoods have no rights to use national property. Among them, however, is one poet. This poet originally came from deep within the interior of South Korea, but since 1996 he has been living in Ganghwa-do (island), where the tidal flats are still mostly intact. This poet is Harm Min-bok. In Korean literary circles, he is called "the last holdout against capitalism."

To drive a stake into tidal mud, / whether it's a stake for a fixed shore net or a laver stake, / a short stake for a shrimp net, or a curved spade stake for stabilizing a big stake, / grab the stake with your hands or feet / and shake it from left-to-right or front-to-back / rather than driving it down forcefully / shaking the stake will soften the tidal mud as water flows in / keep doing this until the tidal mud embraces it and holds it fast / you must shake it from left-to-right or front-to-back.

from "How to Drive a Stake into Tidal Mud," Soft Power by Harm Min-bok
(Munhak Segyesa Publishing Co., 2005)


1. When Exhausted, Go to the Sea
Han Changhoon, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2010, 367p, ISBN 9788954612708

2. Han Changhoon’s Feast
Han Changhoon, Joongang Books
2009, 256p, ISBN 9788961889469

3. Soft Power
Harm Min-bok, Munhak Segye Sa
2005, 132p, ISBN 9788970753317

Such is the life of this poet—he drives stakes into the tidal mud, sticking his arm inside the resulting holes to catch octopus, just to barely scrape by. When he runs out of rice at home, from off the clothesline he takes a few poems which he has hung out to dry, and sends them to the publisher to earn a bit of money. With this he buys a few kilos of rice, while the remainder is spent on drink. Many people who care about him are concerned about his welfare because of his utter lack of planning for his life. This unpredictable poet, however, will be getting married this spring, late in his life. Now he sells ginseng together with his fiancée on Ganghwa-do.

We should probably thank the tidal flats for this occurrence, for embracing all living things, and sucking them in. The soft, sluggish, and powerful tidal flats seem to have extinguished the poet's wanderlust.