Sun, Apr 23, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Japan and Korea resolve maritime standoff


South Korea and Japan defused a tense, high-seas standoff yesterday with a compromise that sees Japan withdraw plans to survey disputed waters and South Korea delay efforts to register Korean names for underwater features in the area, officials said.

Both countries agreed to hold more talks on demarcating their sea boundaries as early as next month, as part of a deal that wrapped two-straight days of negotiations amid concerns of a possible maritime confrontation.

"It's good that we were able to avoid anything unforeseen that could have occurred if the situation had continued as it was," said Japanese Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Shotaro Yachi, Japan's lead negotiator.

Yachi's delegation made an emergency trip to the South Korean capital on Friday to try to break the impasse triggered by Tokyo's plan to send survey ships into the disputed waters.

South Korea had vehemently opposed the survey plans and dispatched 20 gunboats to the area, warning that a physical confrontation was possible if Japan proceeded.

The talks on Friday were "severe" and "tense" according to Yachi, while South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said the two sides "failed to find common ground."

The waters surround a set of rocky outcroppings -- called Dokdo by Koreans and Takeshima in Japan -- that lie halfway between the countries and are claimed by both. The area is a rich fishing ground and is also believed to have methane hydrate deposits, a potential source of natural gas.

The showdown highlighted the rising stakes of rival territorial claims in East Asia, and South Korea's deep-rooted bitterness over Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule.

"Both South Korea and Japan agreed to resume talks on demarcating the boundaries ... considering that this situation was caused because the boundaries of exclusive economic zones have not been fixed," Yu said at a press conference after the meetings concluded yesterday.

Public outrage has flared in South Korea, where protesters have burned Japanese flags and tried to storm Tokyo's embassy, which was surrounded by police in riot gear. A truck was parked in front of the downtown hotel where the negotiations were being held yesterday, blaring patriotic songs.

The vehicle was plastered with signs urging Koreans to boycott Japanese goods and claiming "Dokdo is our territory."

Communist North Korea -- which is technically still at war with rival South because the 1950-53 Korean War ended only in a cease fire -- suggested that the two Koreas offer a joint response to Japan's survey plan.

North Korea made the overture at Cabinet-level talks being held with the South in Pyongyang, according to a pool report from South Korean journalists accompanying the delegation.

Japan has maintained it has the right to conduct the survey under international law, but has kept its two unarmed survey ships out of the waters as both sides sought a diplomatic solution.

Tokyo maintains the survey is needed to match South Korean efforts to map the sea floor and name underwater formations including basins and ridges. Seoul had reportedly planned to try to register Korean names for several of the formations at an international ocean-mapping conference to be held in June in Germany.

Among the proposals may be a request to change the name of the Sea of Japan, the international acceptance of which Seoul has long considered a colonial vestige. Seoul prefers the moniker East Sea for the body of water separating the countries.

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