Japan and South Korea failed to make any progress in their two-day meeting aimed at determining the boundary of their exclusive economic zones in the Sea of Japan. An early breakthrough in the dispute is unlikely, although both countries agreed to hold another round of talks in September. Blocking progress is a cluster of islets to which both countries claim territorial rights.

Since the issue is unlikely to be solved easily, the two countries should seek a compromise that would set aside the territorial dispute for now and allow joint peaceful development of resources in the area.

The most recent talks were the first on the EEZ issue in six years, following similar talks held from 1996 to 2000. The two countries agreed to resume talks after a high-seas showdown in April was averted through diplomatic negotiations. The crisis had stemmed from Japan’s plan to survey the ocean bed near the disputed islets, known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea. The survey plan represented an attempt to counter South Korea’s move to register underwater topographical features with Korean names at a conference of the International Hydrographic Organization.

At one point, South Korea threatened to capture Japanese survey ships if they started work. The crisis was averted when Japan backed away from the survey plan and South Korea dropped its name-registration plan.

In the previous four rounds of talks held from August 1996 to June 2000, South Korea made Ullung Island, 87.4 km west of the disputed islets, the base point for its EEZ claim, insisting on a boundary marked by the median line between Ullung Island and Okinoshima Islands (which belong to Japan’s Shimane Prefecture). Since the line lies slightly east of the Takeshima islets, the islets would end up within South Korea’s EEZ.

Japan did not accept South Korea’s EEZ claim. Instead, it claimed the Takeshima islets as the base point for its EEZ claim and called for a median-line boundary that runs between the islets and Ullung Island.

Under the 1982 U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, which went into effect in 1994 and which Japan ratified in 1996, a signatory country can set an EEZ extending 200 nautical miles from its coasts. Within its EEZ, a signatory country may catch fish or develop and utilize natural resources in the sea or seabed. When EEZ boundaries claimed by neighboring countries overlap, the convention says that an equidistant line between the coasts of the countries should serve as the boundary.

In previous talks, South Korea regarded the Takeshima islets as rocks and did not make them the base point for calculating its EEZ. UNCLOS stipulates that rocks cannot be used to demarcate an EEZ boundary. But in the latest talks, South Korea changed its position and claimed the Takeshima islets as the base point for its EEZ claim, thus drawing a median-line boundary between the Takeshima islets and Okinoshima Islands. This would expand South Korea’s EEZ eastward at Japan’s expense. South Korea controls the islets by stationing a small garrison there. The country also has completed a heliport and a lighthouse.

Behind South Korea’s latest move is a surge of nationalism under the administration of President Roh Moo Hyun, which treats sovereignty over the islets as a historical issue. In a special statement broadcast live in April over the Takeshima dispute, Mr. Roh said, “To our people, Dokdo is a symbol of the restoration of complete sovereignty.”

Mr. Roh even said Japan’s claim to the islets is “an act of justification for its war of aggression and killings.” South Korea is apparently trying to solidify its sovereignty claim over the islets on the strength of rising nationalism.

Amid such poor prospects for settling the sovereignty issue in the near future, and in order to get out of the current impasse, the two countries should take a cue from their 1999 bilateral fisheries agreement to jointly manage the sea around the islets for the time being. This would mean shelving the question of sovereignty over the disputed islets by temporarily halting talks for demarcating the EEZ boundary.

They could also go on to jointly explore natural resources in the area as well as work out measures to prevent unexpected high-seas crises and conflicts.

The most important first step for solving the bilateral problem is to establish a relationship of mutual trust between the top leaders of the two countries. President Roh should rein in his nationalistic barbs while Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should stop visiting Yasukuni Shrine.

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