An old map reveals territorial truth

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Old European maps of Korea being shown in a new exhibition at the Seoul Museum of History hold visual evidence that perhaps can help end the on-going battle over territory and history between Korea and its neighbors, China and Japan.

“These maps can aid in resolving the current international issues: the correct name of the ‘East Sea,’ sovereignty over Dokdo, and disputes over the Korea-China national boundary,” said Soh Jong-chul, a professor of French literature at Seoul National University.

Soh spoke Tuesday at a ceremony to open the exhibition, “Corea in the Imagination of European,” which displays a collection of historic European-made maps of Korea that he and his wife collected over the last three decades. They recently donated them to the museum.

“The fact that these maps were made by a third party, the Europeans, adds more importance to this exhibition,” Soh said.

Even to viewers ignorant of geography and history, these old maps are clear pieces of evidence that can strengthen the nation’s position in the ongoing disputes over old territory and history.

One area of contention is the area Koreans refer to as the Gando region, which covers the present day Jian and Jilin area in China. China took territorial rights over the Gando region in a treaty signed between Japan and China on Sept. 4, 1909. Koreans, however, claim that the area originally belonged to Korea.

Recently, China has been attempting to erase the ancient history of Korea by including Goguryeo – the largest kingdom of the Three Kingdoms era and the kingdom from which the name “Korea” stems – as a part of China’s history.

However, a 1737 French map, “Royaume de Coree (Kingdom of Korea),” shows that the Korea-China boundary was slanted more toward the north in the past, demonstrating that the Gando region was associated with Korea then.

“Nouvelle Carte De L’asie (New Map of Asia),” another early 18th century map, marks the East Sea “Mer Orientale” which means East Sea in English. Many of the maps use the terms East Sea or the Sea of Korea, not Sea of Japan, the term Japan insists on.

A “Map of China, Korea and Japan,” from 1832, which is a German copy of a Japanese map, specifically states that Dokdo – a small island located between Korea and Japan – is part of Korea. Dokdo is colored yellow like the rest of Korea and beside the island is a sentence in small letters, “Takenosima a la Coree (Dokdo of Korea).” Takenosima was the Japanese name for the island.

The fact that this map’s original version was made in Japan indicates that even Japan acknowledged Dokdo as Korea’s territory at that time.

Professor Soh and his wife Kim In-whan, an Ewha Woman’s University professor, assembled the collection after finding an old map of Korea in France 30 years ago.

After seeing the word “East Sea” on a map at Versailles, Soh bought a copy of it, thinking, “If someone questions what I have seen, I will have the evidence in my own hands.”

He began looking at and acquiring other old European maps that showed Korea. Eventually the couple acquired more than 100 of the historic documents, and Soh and his wife realized that their collection did not belong to them anymore.

“One day, I realized that the collection must be opened to the public, so that everyone could see the truth of the past,” Professor Soh said.

“My heart was heavy with burden when I kept the maps to myself. But now it has become as light as a feather, knowing that the museum is going to take good care of the maps for me,” he added with a smile.

Although some of the maps are hundreds of years old, they are in excellent condition, with the colors and the lettering hardly faded or damaged. The maps’ worn corners are the only evidence of time, reflecting the hard work and devotion that Soh and his wife exerted to preserve these historic documents.

The exhibition is also a chance to see the changes in Europeans’ views of Korea from the 16th century, when Korea first appeared on Western maps, up through the 18th century. At first, European countries thought Korea was a small island. An early Dutch map titled “Asia” depicts it as an island, labeling it “Ilha de Corea (Korea Island).”

In the 17th century, European mapmakers came to realize that Korea is a peninsula. An Italian map “Atlas de la Extrema Asia (Map of Great Asia)” from 1655 was the first map to show Korea attached to the Asian mainland as a peninsula.

While marveling over the excellence of the maps, some visitors may think about the land and sea of Korea and how Korea can reveal and preserve the truth about its past for the sake of the nation’s future.

The exhibition will continue through Dec. 26.

Seoul Museum of History is located near Gwanghwamun Station, Subway Line No. 5, and Exit 8. For more information, see or call (82-2) 724-0114.