JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA LOCK HORNS OVER
--- by Barbara Wanner
Japan's relations with South Korea, which historically have been uneasy, have taken a turn for the worse due to conflicting claims of sovereignty over a small cluster of islands in the sea between the two countries. Although Japan and South Korea for more than 90 years have not seen eye-to-eye about ownership of the 2,700-square-foot area, called Takeshima by Tokyo and Tok-do by Seoul, this disagreement flared into a major diplomatic brouhaha in early February when the Japanese government's plan for a 200-mile economic zone, drafted in accordance with the 1994 Law of the Sea Treaty, included this barely habitable speck of land. The South Korean government lashed out at Tokyo for attempting to run roughshod over territory that Seoul also claims. Subsequently, South Korea sought to bolster its claim by constructing a wharf on one of the islets and conducting military exercises around the entire Takeshima/Tak-do group. In an effort to defuse the matter Japanese officials reportedly stressed that Tokyo considers the territorial dispute to be separate from the issue of implementing the economic zone. At this stage it is unclear if Seoul would agree even to that proposal. The People's Republic of China and Taiwan, in the meantime, are watching the Japan-South Korea imbroglio closely for clues to similar joint claims over the Senkaku islands, a cluster of islands in the East China Sea that also are within 200 miles of Japan.
Located about halfway between Japan and South Korea, the Takeshima/Tak-do outcroppings are surrounded by rich fishing grounds that the industries of both countries evidently are anxious to harvest. In addition, there are reports of potentially lucrative mineral and petroleum deposits in the area. Japanese diplomats have emphasized that one of Tokyo's main reasons for establishing the 200-mile zone is to enable more effective management of natural and mineral resources. "The spirit of the [Law of the Sea Treaty] is to encourage signatories to set regulations for resource conservation in the [economic zone] and to establish a new fishery regime, including granting other states rights to fish in [this area]," an unidentified official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently was quoted as saying. The Law of the Sea Treaty, which has been ratified by 85 nations, grants coastal states the right to "explore, exploit, conserve and manage the natural resources, whether living or nonliving," within 200 nautical miles. When the distance between two countries is less than 400 miles, as it is with Japan and South Korea, the guidelines state that a midway point can be chosen or that the countries can negotiate where to draw the economic zone. The convention specifically allows a signatory coastal state to determine the total allowable fishing catch in its zone and, if it does not have the capacity to harvest the catch fully, to give other countries access to the surplus through agreements or other arrangements.
The proposal for Japan's 200-mile zone was approved February 20 by the cabinet of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. Government officials hope to secure lower house passage of implementing legislation and treaty ratification documents embodying the plan during the current Diet session. The proposed effective date is April 1997.
South Korea's pique concerning Japan's plans to establish the economic zone apparently is not due primarily to concerns about securing access to fishing grounds, experts say. Seoul's combative stance on the sovereignty of Takeshima/Tak-do stems more from nationalistic concerns. South Korea, which, among Asian countries, suffered some of the harshest treatment by Japanese occupiers in the 50 years leading up to the 1945 end of World War II, regards Tokyo's establishment of an economic zone that includes the Takeshima/Tok-do islets as yet another Japanese affront to its national honor. Anti-Japanese sentiments in South Korea swelled after Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda's February 9 protest of Seoul's decision to construct the wharf; he argued that the Takeshima/Tak-do group are "historically, and in the view of international law, an integral part of Japan." South Koreans reacted by burning the Japanese flag and an effigy of Mr. Ikeda. President Kim Young Sam subsequently refused to meet with a delegation of Japanese Diet representatives, forcing them to cancel plans for a February 12 trip.
Although Japanese officials have said that there is little danger that the two countries will resort to military means to secure formal control over the islets, Tokyo clearly appeared worried that South Korea's February 15 military exercises would cause bilateral tensions to escalate further. A February 14 meeting in Tokyo between Mr. Ikeda and South Korea's ambassador to Japan, Kim Tae Zhee, produced an agreement to begin a bilateral dialogue aimed at solving conflicts related to each country's delineation of its 200-mile zone. The two officials also ruled out using a third party to mediate the conflict on the grounds that the Law of the Sea Treaty stipulates that disagreements related to the establishment of economic zones should be resolved solely by the countries involved. Foreign Ministry officials reportedly are not optimistic that these talks will produce a breakthrough in the near future. This could create uncertainty about the outlook for Japanese-South Korean relations at a time when stability on the Korean peninsula remains a regional concern, particularly in view of apprehensions about North Korea's implementation of a 1994 nuclear agreement with the United States (see JEI Report No. 41B, October 28, 1994) and Pyongyang's apparent problems in providing its populace with adequate food supplies (see JEI Report No. 5B, February 9, 1996).
Concurrently, officials in Tokyo apparently are doing their utmost to keep Japan from becoming embroiled in a similar conflict with Taiwan and China concerning their overlapping claims to the Senkaku islands. Beijing earlier this month sought to demonstrate its intended jurisdiction by conducting trial drilling for oil near these islands, which it calls Diaoyutai. Although Tokyo and Beijing reportedly have agreed to keep nationalistic sentiments out of their discussions over the establishment of Japan's economic zone and the implications that has for ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai group, some observers in the intelligence community apparently are worried about the possibility of the three claimants coming to blows over this territory.