Islands of little value Japan-South Korea dispute: Wealth in the sea is the prize.

February 25, 1996

THE UNITED NATIONS convention on the Law of the Sea was intended to resolve disputes, not start them. But it was Japan's intended ratification of the convention this year that brought a collision with South Korea over three tiny islands in the Korea Strait between them.

It would be tempting to call the isles uninhabited but a Korean fisherman lives on one. South Korea put 26 soldiers there and, as the crisis developed, sent eight more. South Korea has claimed the islands since the year 512. Japan says it took them from Russia in 1904. After Japan's 35-year colonization of Korea ended in 1945, South Korea's claim seemed stronger.

The declining fishery has a lot to do with the tensions. Japan will ratify the convention in order to claim a 200-nautical-mile economic zone around its territories, as the convention allows. In such a zone, Japan would set the rules for exploitation. Fishing, which Japan, South Korea and China do in these waters, is important. So is the prospect of minerals in the seabed.

The economic zone would proceed from the barren islands until it bumped into South Korea's economic zone, also soon to be proclaimed. The boundary would need to be demarcated by negotiation. Japan's attempt to upset South Korea's fait accompli in the islands is a negotiating tactic.

Japan has a more celebrated dispute over islands with Russia, and another with China. China is bellicose over islands in the South China Sea in dispute with Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. In virtually all these disputes, the wealth in the adjacent seabed is the prize.

East Asia is beset by truly frightening prospects of an insecure but gigantic China tempted to use war to whip up national unity, and of a collapsing North Korean regime that may go out with a bang. From its two strongest economies and most stable countries, East Asia needs role models of peaceful resolution of disputes. For that to happen, Japan should come to terms with the strength, dignity and lingering resentment of its former colony, Korea. Bellicosity between them ill serves them both.

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