▲ The Ieodo Ocean Research Station. Photo courtesy Korea Ocean Research & Development Institute
Submerged 4.6 meters below sea level, Ieodo Rock has once again become the subject of international debate between South Korea and China, each claiming that the submerged rock lies within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The submerged rock, which has never been recorded as being above sea level, is located 149 km southwest of South Korea’s Marado and 287 km East of China’s Yushandao Island.
The dispute between South Korea and China sparked in 2006 after China protested what it called “Korea’s unilateral actions in the area,” referring to the construction and installation of the Ieodo Ocean Research Station. The research station, installed in 2001, helps researchers measure ocean currents and accumulate data for weather forecasting, for fishery, and for environmental protection and conservation.
Shim Jae Seol, director of Climate Change and Coastal Disaster Research Department of the Korea Ocean Research & Development Institute said, “more than 100,000 ships pass Ieodo,” which results in several accidents a year. The Ieodo Ocean Research Station also acts as a lighthouse, and its helicopter pad allows for rescue operations.
While neither country claims the rock as territory, China has objected to Korean activities on Ieodo Rock as a breach of its EEZ rights.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows coastal countries to regulate catch and seabed resources in an economic zone extending 200 nautical miles, or 370 kilometers, from their shores. The dispute between the two countries lies within the fact that based on this law, the two countries’ EEZs overlap, giving both legal claim to Ieodo Rock.
South Korea has taken the position that in order to resolve this issue, a maritime border should be drawn equidistant between the two countries, leaving Ieodo Rock within South Korea’s EEZ. South Korea also asserts that Ieodo Rock is located on it’s continental shelf, making the submerged rock part of Korean territory.
Shim said, “In international law, there is a term called ‘mid-line principle.’ Korea argues this principle to divide the territory.” While he attests that China argues on the “‘fairness principle,’ which is about bigger population [the] longer [the] coastlines. However, issues like this are supposed to be resolved with ‘mid-line principle.’”
China’s approach to maritime delimitation is based on the the natural prolongation principle also claiming that Ieodo sits on its continental shelf and thus lies within the EEZ of the two countries.
What may seem like a pointless dispute about a submerged rock may not be so pointless after all.
According to the article “China and its Ocean Disputes,” by Jerome A. Cohen and Jon M. Van Dyke, disputes over seemingly insignificant islets could be of great importance because “they not only arouse nationalist territorial passions but also may be relevant to the much larger issue of how to draw maritime boundaries in the area.” Thus a nation’s sovereignty, national security, transportation routes, and economic resources could also be at stake.
According to article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a rock which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of its own cannot claim its own EEZ or territorial waters. Ieodo Rock, which is submerged at all times, is not entitled to generate any of its own maritime zones. However, international agreement as to the location of the maritime border between the two countries could be potentially invaluable to South Korea and China, not only for economic reasons (oil or natural resources in the sea surrounding the rock), but also for strengthening maritime delimitation claims.
The Asia Times published an article on July 24, 2004 confirming a large amount of oil lying below the East China seabed, giving China and South Korea all the more reason to be aggressive in their EEZ territory claims.
As the world’s second largest oil consumer after the US, China has been racing to develop natural resources to meet its rapidly growing domestic demand for energy. South Korea, who is lacking in natural resources, is also looking to develop domestic sources to strengthen and grow their already flourishing economy. The oil-rich undersea territory may be the answer to South Korea and China’s growing energy and economic needs.
At the time of publication, negotiations between China and South Korea have remained deadlocked over which country can claim Ieodo Rock as lying within their territory.
“Well, I can’t say,” Shim said about how this conflict will be resolved. “...You need to remember the national power of China. This issue can be resolved after the two countries decide to agree ... but I don’t think it will happen for some time. But lots of countries are in this situation too. It is really not easy to resolve these kinds of issues.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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