Ministry clueless on maritime rights promotion
By Chung Min-uck
South Korea has remained inactive in maritime diplomacy while neighboring global powers, Japan and China, have already launched campaigns to bolster their maritime ambitions and strengthen claims in disputed waters.
Seoul became alarmed after the United Nations Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf agreed to Tokyo’s request that four sea territories be recognized as part of its continental shelf. According to an official in the Japanese capital, the announcement will allow the country to develop undersea resources beyond its original Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Governments can claim ownership of resources exclusively in their EEZs, which are up to 200 nautical miles from their coastlines.
China is also gearing up to expand its territorial waters. In the South China Sea, a vast area disputed by half a dozen Asian nations, there are reportedly trillions of dollars worth of oil and gas deposits. Beijing has taken an aggressive stance in attempting to claim these resources, imposing economic sanctions on the Philippines in an ongoing standoff over the Scarborough Shoal by canceling Chinese tour groups and blocking imports of bananas.
Since last month, the two nations have been embroiled in a dispute over the shoal, called Panatag in the Philippines, and Huangyan Island by China.
Reportedly, Beijing is even considering military action to back its sovereignty of the disputed shoal.
China’s first deep water oil drill started production in another part of the contested waters, southeast of Hong Kong.
Unlike its neighbors, Seoul had taken a passive stance in claiming new territorial rights and reaching out for underwater resources, referring to it as unlawful.
“We cannot simply claim a territorial area. That’s illegal. It will only cause disputes,” said an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, when asked whether Seoul has any plan to extend its sea territory. “Our main objective in offshore policy is to seek to delimit maritime boundaries with neighboring nations.”
Seoul has yet to specify on the use of the overlapping areas of its EEZ with Japan and China. Bilateral talks on the issue have been stalled since 2010.
An official from the foreign ministry said that it is not sure when the negotiations will resume and it will take a long time to reach a compromise.
“We have no space to expand our oceanic boundaries like Japan and China as we are locked in between them. We have no other choice but to focus on winning ongoing territorial disputes by controlling the areas that we own,” said an official from the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs.
Seoul built an ocean research station in 2003 on Ieodo, a submerged reef 4.6 meters below sea level southwest of Jeju Island. China has also laid claim to the rocks.
It is also planning on constructing residential and surveillance facilities on the easternmost islets of Dokdo, which are claimed by Japan.
The areas are already effectively controlled by South Korea and the actions are aimed only to solidify sovereignty, without any new gains.
No efforts made
Against this backdrop, calls are mounting for the government to take the initiative in the global competition for undersea resources. Related projects need government investment as they involve massive costs and take a long time to develop.
However, the government is not prepared to follow the actions of its neighbors.
“Underwater research should be initiated before anything else as it is the basis for any projects in relation to maritime territory,” said Yang Hee-cheol, a researcher at the state-run Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute (KORDI). “To tell the truth we are way behind Japan and China.”
The researcher also indicated that due to the lack of research, Seoul is likely to be disadvantaged in negotiations to draw limits in the waters separating Korea from Japan and China.
“We don’t even know what is below our EEZ. We should first check underneath our own waters to see if there are any economic gains before having negotiations.”
Meanwhile, the land ministry plans to introduce a bill this year to establish a new government facility to handle overall oceanic research.