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)