What’s in a Name, IR Edition

How many people out of the 6 billion who now populate planet earth do you think consider “the naming of the body of water between the Koreas and Japan” a “contentious issue”? It’s impossible to say for sure, but it’s a safe bet that it tops out at about 49 million, and I’d wager it’s significantly less than that. Nevertheless, the Northeast Asian History Foundation has historical maps in hand to support Korea’s claim, made to the Ninth Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names in 2007, that what is now called the Sea of Japan should instead be called the “East Sea/Sea of Japan” until the question is definitively resolved.

Tongue in cheek tone aside, the fact that there’s a U.N.-sponsored conference on the subject, and that it has convened nine times, demonstrates that the issue really is contentious. The Persian Gulf is another example (disputed by the Arab Gulf States), and Greece’s objections to Macedonia’s NATO membership are based on concerns that it could generate separatist notions in Greece’s province of the same name.

Disputes over names often involve hard interests, such as establishing territorial claims or concerns over sovereignty (as in Greece’s case).

But they are also often a question of national or ethnic pride. The problem is that such disputes often have the oppposite result of what is intended, because the side that disputes the commonly accepted appelation usually comes across as being defensive and petty.

Question: Is the benefit worth the cost?