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The Korean shrimp in a whale fightKorean maritime claim highlights three-way territorial dispute in East China Sea
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승인 2013.05.22  15:03:41
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▲ China and Korea's maritime claims overlap near Japan's Okinawa Trough. Image by Yun Seong Un

In affairs of the sea, the People’s Republic of China has discovered its new economic power has given it a lot of weight in the game of advanced maritime border chess. It is a development that has not gone unnoticed by Korea and Japan, who have responded with moves of their own.

China lodged a claim with the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN-CLCS) on Dec. 15, 2012, stating its continental shelf in the East China Sea extended beyond its territorial limits under Article 76 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UN-LOS). UN-CLCS is engaged when a party to UN-LOS claims continental shelf boundaries “200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of its territorial sea is measured.”

China’s claim now laps at the Okinawa Trough, in Japan’s southwest. Not wanting to be outflanked, on Dec. 26 Korea reporting to UN-CLCS that it had doubled its own 2009 continental-shelf claim. A three-month appeal window slammed shut in March and Korea’s claim will be on the Commission’s New York agenda this July.

“The continental shelf in this report is extended by at least 38 kilometers and at most 125 kilometers toward Japan compared with our preliminary report submitted in May 2009,” an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Kyunghyang Shinmun.

Korea’s territorial claim now extends far southeast of Jeju Island, overlapping w i t h C h i n a ’ s c l a i m b e t w e e n 27˚99′~30˚89′N and 127˚62′~129˚17′E. While the claims of China and Korea clash, they also push into the territory of Japan’s Okinawa Islands.

Although the Korean and Chinese claims may intuitively seem excessive (see map), they are both founded in interpretations of international law: Paragraphs 3 - 6 of Article 76 of UN-LOS. The official lodging of the complaint also ensures a stronger hand at the negotiating table. A foreign ministry official said:

“The trilateral negotiations will not be easy since it will be difficult to yield even one centimeter. It took China and Vietnam 30 years to agree to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the early 2000s. It will be difficult to find a solution other than through long-term negotiations and political decisions.”

▲ The Ieodo Ocean Research Station is the center of a maritime dispute, southwest of Jeju.Photo courtesy Ieodo Ocean Research Station

The Korean claim comes on the back of a lingering dispute with China over Ieodo (Socotra Rock), a submerged reef approximately 80 nautical miles southwest of Jeju. The Korean government has built the Ieodo Ocean Research Station at the reef and claims it is the Ieodo of Jeju myth, the spiritual abode of dead fishermen and haenyeo.

The Korea Herald reported this April that the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries could permanently station researchers at Ieodo Research Station, “as a way of strengthening the country’s control.” Korea also plans building ships capable of actively patrolling the waters around the submerged reef.

Until as recently as 15 thousand years ago Japan, South Korea and China were connected by land and one could walk between them without wet feet, while even a walk to Taiwan was a serious option. Despite the water rising with theend of the Ice age, China’s claim to UN-CLCS implicitly recalls this, claiming the seabed is still “the natural prolongation of [its] land territory.”

Since Jeju is the land nearest to the contested area one might think that the people who make a living on the sea would care more about the current conflict. “We don’t really fish so far out at sea,” one fisherman from Moseulpo, the part of Jeju closest to Ieodo, said. “We mainly fish in the coastal areas. It is the Chinese who actually do fish around Ieodo.”

This he did not mind, and neither did the other fishermen. “We rarely see the Chinese fishermen, and usually it is after a storm has blown them off course towards Jeju. We pick them up, help them, and often they go back to China as soon as possible.” One fisherman said laughing: “As long as the Chinese don’t claim Marado or Gapado, we are fine with it.”

Not so the navy, however. Their ongoing construction of a new navy base at Gangjeong is at least partly based on Chinese claims on Korean maritime territory. From a national perspective this encroachment is likely to result in real effects on Jeju, whether the locals like it or not. Yonhap reported in January of this year:

“The continental shelf in the East China Sea is believed to be rich in natural gas and oil deposits.”

While the Iedo patrol boat is sure to find safe harbor at the naval base at Gangjeong, the base itself is sure to strengthen Seoul’s hand when seeking to enforce any resource claims in the waters south of Jeju.

As all sides await the UN-CLCS recommendations this summer, it’s far from “checkmate.”

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