The problem of the Noktundo Island in the media in South Korea

By Ivanov A.

Associate professor, Ph.D. in History

FESUH (Khabarovsk)


Recent years Mass Media of South Korea worry about the construction of dams on the river Tumengen by the Russian side the in the area adjacent to the island Noktundo. In this regard, the South Korean press declared that the Russian side, thus makes it difficult to return to the Korean side of the island Noktundo belonging to Korea until the second half of XIX century, by carrying out the work to enhance shoreline.

As a result of such statements South Korea began to show great interest in this island of 32 square kilometers in the estuary of the river Tumengan. Interest is being fuelled loud titles of articles such as “Noktundo, Shindo, and Primorsky Krai – our territory, which we have to remember” (Lee Jae-Hwan, Doosan Encyber, 17.07.2007), «The loss of the island due to the negligent Noktundo descendants” (Chung Wee Yong, Ton-a Ilbo, 2006.11.23), “Our places of territorial conflicts. Historical facts of Primorsky Krai “(Ton-a Ilbo), and etc. The authors of these articles are not shy of expression, speaking about the occupation of Korean territory by the great powers in the period of imperialism, thus alluding to the fact that between Korea and Russia, there is a territorial problem that concerns not only the border areas of two states, but also a part of Primorsky Krai.

First publications in the South Korean press, which raises the issue of ownership of the island Noktundo refer to 1972 when Dongguk University professor Park Tae Geun found in a national book a map of “Agukechzhido”, drawn up in 1884. 30 years later in the area of the island Noktundo groups of scientists, geographers, historians and journalists were sent to investigate land that they believe once belonged to Korea. Professor Myung Ho Kore-Moon, seeing the close geographical, cultural and historical ties with the region Noktundo Korea believes that the need for a comprehensive study of not only the Noktundo Island, but part of the Primorsky Territory at the moment is the possibility of investment for the development of the region. In the future, after the reunification of Korea, South Korean scientists see the prospect of their research in the right to bring territorial of the disputed territory of Russia.

South Korean scientists in an attempt to prove the original identity of the island Noktundo Korea, first of all, turn to historical documents, including, to the chronicles of the, in which the island Noktundo mentioned 12 times.

In reality, this island was first mentioned in the annals of Korean “Sechzhosillok” called Sachhamado. In the XV century it was attached to Korea, and included in the county Kenhyn, when by the order of the Sechzho on the northern border have been established “six military positions.” In the Chronicles of “Tongukechzhisynnam” and on the map” Agukechzhido” marked that the island is Noktundo in the estuary of the river Tumengan is a 20 lee out of the mountain Chosan (in S. Korea).

In the Chronicles of “Sechzhosillok” noted that in 1455, the first year of reign, the ruler of the government Joseon Sechzho instructed to defend Korean peasants engaged in agriculture on the island against the attacks of the Jurchen.  It was the first time when the name of the island – Noktundo was mentioned. On Japanese maps and documents the island was designated under this title.

In 1514, the official Korean Ahn Yong Dok reported to the king Chunchzhon about the necessity of the island defense and in 1542 soldiers from the Joseon’s garrison asked to establish a military post on Noktundo.

Korean scientists believe that the island Noktundo closely connected with the life of the Korean naval commander Yi Sun Sin. The documents noted that in 1587 in the result of attack of Jurchen people were killed 11 Korean soldiers, including the chief of a military settlement on the Noktundo Island Lee Kyong Bong, and 160 civilians were prisoned. The following year, Lee Shin Sung, who took the responsibility over the incident took part in battles with the Jurchens around the Noktundo island with 2,500 soldiers under the leadership of I Il. Having shown valour in this battle, in the result of which it has been destroyed more than 400 enemy troops, Lee Sun Shin was reinstated in his post, and within three years, was responsible for the defense of the island.

Professor Lee Ki Sok at Seoul University, studding in the 2004 Noktundo Islands, discovered 4 km long earthen wall and height of 6 – 7 meters. In this regard, Lee Ki Sok supposed that on the island was located Noktundo military settlement, the garrison of which guarded the borders of the state while engaged in the processing of agricultural land. Confirmation of this Korean scientists see in the chronicles, which noted that in 1586 the royal court at Noktundo was sent an official to establish a military settlement tunchzhonkvan, with the transfer of military and peasants, agricultural implements and draft animals.

Since the beginning of the XVII century. there was no any records about Noktundo in the documents till the second half of XIX century. Prior to this period, at the border of the Qing Empire and Korea were “exclusion zone” with eviction of local residents. According to Korean scientists, the Qing government made a similar move to secure its borders and prevent cross-border cooperation of residents (including Koreans) with reinforcing Russian expansion in the Far East. But, according to Professor of the Institute of Radio Broadcasting and Information, No Kye Hyun, during this period Noktundo still belonged to Korea.

According to No Kye Hyun, the disputes over geography belonging of the island Noktundo begins with the fact that the stream of the northern arm of Tumengan River (some Korean cartographers suggest that it was a tributary of the Tumengan river codenamed Noktungan) discontinued due to reclamation of sand and silt from the upper river, as well as lowering the water level in the Sea of Japan, resulting the changing in the river channel, and Island Noktundo naturally allied with the Primorsky Krai. On the map, compiled during the Qing Dynasty in 1709, the island has been part of this territory of Primorsky Krai. On the Korean map “Kenhynypchi” late XIX – early XX centuries the Island Noktundo also was designated as part of the left bank of the Tumengan River. But, despite the fact that the Korean government actually ceased to control the area of Noktundo, according to No Kye Hyun, they still considered the island under the jurisdiction of Korea.

However, according to South Korean scientists, the Russian side, using weakness of Korea, has attached island Noktundo to Primorsky Krai. Later, according to scientists, the Russian government, realizing that legally the Noktundo Island belongs to Korea, offered to discuss the border issue with the Korean government. At that time, Korea avoided external contacts with Western countries, so the Korean government has refused and the negotiations with the Russian authorities, agreeing only to mediate the Qing Empire.

The Russian side put pressure on the Qing China and signed Peking Treaty  in the 1860 according to which the island Noktundo legally pass to Russia. In 1861, Peking Treaty fixed the boundary in the course of the negotiations between China, Russia and Korea on the Khanka Lake. Thus, the State border between Korea and Russia, according to South Korean scholars, was installed without the participation of the Korean party and without formal notice of the Korean Government, in violation of all norms of international law.

On this occasion, Professor of Incheon University No Young Don said that despite the signing of Peking Treaty by Russia and China, Qing China, without any authority handed the territory of Korea to Russia. Thus, in his opinion, the Peking Treaty under international law can not be a limiting factor for Korea in solving the territorial problem between the two countries.

Since 1883 (according to some sources, 1889), the Korean government, preoccupied by the loss of the island Noktundo, proposed the project to settle the dispute over the border between the three states, but it was not accepted by China and Russia properly. After the conclusion of the Russian-Korean trade agreement the Korean government has been accessed to Czarist Russia many times with a request for the return of the Noktundo Island, which remained unanswered. In 1883, three rounds of talks were held between Korea and China over the resolution of the territorial problem. The Qing government interrupted the negotiations, referring to the false topographic documents at the time of the transfer of the east of the Tumengan River territories to Russia, and only regretted the Korean side. Thus, according to Director of Research Institute for the territorial issues in East Asia, Yang Tae Jin (former Government’s Chief of Protocol Department and Director of Research Society on territorial disputes “Thomunhve”), Chinese officials have implicitly recognized the “indiscretion conclusion of the Qing-Russian agreement of 1860 “.

Noting the increased activity of the Korean government in returning the Noktundo Island, Yang Tae Jin refers to a Japanese official documents, where is the requirement of the Joseon Royal Court to return the territory of Korea. Thus, one of the secret reports of the Japanese Government dated by November 15, 1886 inform about the request of the Korean government to return to the Noktundo Island. In the report of the Japanese Consul in Pusan Ritsuda Cava to Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, on June 20, 1890 mention a meeting of the Korean government and the K.I. Weber on the return of the territories in the region Noktundo, on which the Russian consul promised to offer the Korean side to his leadership. In spite the hostile attitude of Koreans to the period of Japan occupation in 1910 – 1945’s., the authors of some articles emphasize that the Japanese colonial regime also considered areas around the Noktundo Island as “Korean territories.” However, Japanese sources reported that the occupation of the Korean land by Russia, reflected the weakness of the Korea’s authorities in dealing with territorial dispute.

Thus, Yang Tae Jin affirms that since there is no official document that Korea recognize the demarcation of boundaries between Qing China and Tsarist Russia, and the fact that the Qing government transferred the Russian side land, this is a cause for rejection DPRK Treaty of Peking, and from here, and the official border between Russia and Korea.

Alluding to the original ownership of the island Noktundo to Korea, South Korean Media is drawn attention to the fact that in the area of the island Noktundo has lived Korean people for a long time. Thus, in the report of 1883 to King Gojong O Yoon Jung reported about Koreans living on the island of Noktundo, which respect the customs of Korea and did not recognize the Russian traditions. In the report is noted that island of Noktundo is a territory of Korea. Korean emissaries Kim Gwang Hoon and Sin Song Ok, the same year designed in the area of the island Noktundo to assess the current situation on the Russian-Korean border reported that, on the island lived 113 Korean families a total number of which is 822 people.

According to the diary of one of the activists of the movement for the independence of Korea from Japanese colonialism, Shin Phil Soo, in 1921, on the island Noktundo lived 40 Korean families who were later forcibly deported to Central Asia during Stalin’s regime.

Professor from Phohansky University Park Song Yong said that Korean specialists, aware of the fact that transferring by China of Primorsky Krai to Russia is a big mistake, and now conduct research including recent transfer to China of the Islands on the Amur River. He thinks that, if it will be possible to cancel the Peking Treaty, the territorial issue between Russia and Korea will enter a new phase and not only about the Noktundo, but also of Primorsky Krai,

The Korean researchers affirm that the stele on Pektusan was set before the arrival of Russian on the Far East and it is a main argument, pointing to the identity of Primorsky Krai to Korea. It is noted there that the boundary between the Qing Empire and Korea passes through a certain river named Thomungan, tributary of the river Songhua (the location of which is still a matter of controversy among Korean scientists). To the opinion of the Korean scientists this fact indicates that the territory to the east of the river actually belonged to Korea before 1860.

It’s known that in 1990 a border treaty was signed between North Korea and the USSR, which now passes through the channel of the river Tumengan. Thus, the North Korean side recognized the right of Russia to the Noktundo Island. Despite this, the South Korean Mass Media  criticized North Korean regime for taking passive position towards the problems of the island Noktundo by signing with the former Soviet Union a contract.

In a situation when, official Pyongyang does not impose any requirements ownership of the Noktundo island, Mr. Yang Tae-Jin believes that the South Korean government should show its opinion on the matter. Such opinion was already expressed by South Korean side in 1990, to diplomatic representative of the USSR in Seoul about the return of the Noktundo island, which Soviet side had left unanswered. In addition, South Korea set up action groups, demanded to return the island Noktundo to Korea. Thus, during the visit of President of Soviet Union Gorbachev’s to the Republic of Korea initiative group led by Professor Lee Hyun Sok sent a petition to president No Tae U, where he proposed to require the head of the Soviet state return Noktundo island. This petition was later sent to President Yeltsin.

The most radical scholars, referring to the “national historic right”, required to reconsider view on domestic history, reflected in the history textbooks, and try to change consciousness of Koreans that the kingdom of Joseon in its historical development remained only in the Korean Peninsula. Mass Media in South Korea offered to pay attention to the border precedents that occurred between Russia and China. For example, recently concluded agreement on the transfer of the Tarabarov Island in the part of Ussuri Island to Chinese side, suggest South Korean Mass Media that between Russia and Korea, there are still contentious issues.

In this regard, one of the representatives of the Ministry of South Korea drew attention to the fact that in 1999 on the Russian-North Korean talks, besides the question of the right of vessels navigation on the river Tumengan of third countries, were discussed the issue of ownership of the island Noktundo. Moreover, citing Russian the South Korean press reported that after the North Korean side began to build a dam on the right bank of the river Tumen, which led to erosion and flooding of the Russian coast in 2003 and 2004, between the Russia and North Korea held talks, where discussed the revision of the border due to changes in the riverbed.

But, despite the current situation the Korean scientists emphasize the Peking Treaty in solving the territorial issue between Russia and Korea. According to a number of Korean scholars, Peking Treaty of 1860, has no legal force for South Korea, and this issue can be solved only after the unification of the Korean Peninsula. In this case Professor Yang Tae Jin states that, despite the fact that the Noktundo Island was annexed to Russia, it is a historic part of Korean territory, which must be returned. Thus, declaring that Noktundo Island is an ancestral territory of Korea, South Korean media are based primarily not on the legal documents, but on the historical identity of the Primorsky Territory, recorded in the annals of Korea. At the same time the South Korean experts, paying attention to the location of the island Noktundo, see the obvious economic benefits, calling it the “Manhattan of the North-East Asia.” In this regard, experts from South Korea, realizing the importance of developing the area of the river Tumengan, at discussion of conditions of economic projects between North Korea, Russia and South Korea suggest the Korean side to raise the problem of ownership of the Noktundo Island. One of the proposals, for example, was a joint organization of dredging between the Noktundo Island and the Russian coast of the Tumengan river, the restoration of the river bed with further discussions of returning the island to Korea.

On the basis of the above mentioned materials of South Korean Media it is possible to draw the following conclusions:

A. among Korean historians there is a perception of the need to impose serious Russia territorial claims. Under this view, for a long time, they hold systematic studies focused on supplying the necessary theoretical basis;

B. the possibility of the territorial problem in relations with Russia is not considered as a purely scientific, theoretical issue, in the Republic of Korea but carries applied, practically the directed character. This is evidenced by the fact that this question presented to the public through a broad discussion of the most respected publications in the South Korean media, including national newspapers such as “Tone-a Ilbo”, “Chosun Ilbo” and several other print and electronic media. So gradually to prepare public opinion to the positive perception of territorial claims to Russia, by means of playing at the national and patriotic feelings of the citizens;

C. This problem, if not initiated directly by public authorities of the Republic of Korea, but can not find any serious opposition. This statement was made only on the basis of existence of the RK “Research Institute on territorial issues in East Asia.” It also must be noted that the director of the Institute along with other, in Korean press make statements that confirm the existence of territorial claims;

D. authors of South Korean publications recognize and submitte that territorial claims is a matter of more or less distant future, which can be successfully initiated and carried out after unification of ROK and the DPRK into a unified Korean state. But now as the main tasks put forward by South Korean scientists, apparently, is to prepare a theoretical framework for public opinion.


Translated from Russian by Marina Osipova, APIR Center.