China disputes S. Korea's ownership of Ieo Island

Posted on : 2006-09-14 21:35 KST Modified on : 2006-09-14 21:35 KST

China said Thursday it cannot recognize South Korea's sovereignty over Ieo Island, a remote reef-islet in the waters between the Asian neighbors, after China announced it had conducted aerial surveillance on the islet last year.

“Suyan Rock is a reef located below the waters in the northern part of the East China Sea, and we have never determined its ownership with South Korea," said Qin Gang, a spokesman at Beijing's Foreign Ministry, during a press conference. Suyan Rock is the Chinese name for Ieo Island (pronounced yee-o), on which South Korea has operated maritime observation facilities since 2001.

"Suyan Rock is where each country's EEZs (economic exclusive zones) overlap,” Qin said, adding that South Korean and Chinese officials met twice but failed to agree on a sea border near the islet.

Seoul immediately refuted Beijing's claim, saying the South Korean government has sovereign rights over Ieo Island as it is part of South Korea's territorial waters.

"Basically, it is not a territorial dispute, but a problem caused by the absence of a firm exclusive economic zone between the two countries," a Seoul government official said.

"Clearly, Ieo Island is part of South Korea's sovereign rights. Thus it is our lawful right to build and operate a maritime scientific base upon it."

A day earlier, China's State Oceanic Administration said Chinese planes flew surveillance missions over the islet and its scientific facilities five times last year, raising speculation that the announcement is aimed at launching its territorial claim over the islet.

The islet lies about 149 kilometers southwest of South Korea's southernmost island of Mara and 245 km away from China's Tongdao Island.

According to U.N. maritime law, a reef doesn't allow a country to have both EEZ and continental shelf claims. South Korea's claim to Ieo Island is based on the fact that the reef and its adjacent waters are part of South Korea's continental shelf.

Seoul's ties with Beijing recently soured after a state-run academic institute in China disclosed research papers arguing that ancient Korean kingdoms were its vassal governments. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun expressed regret over the papers, but China repeated that they are only academic works.

Beijing/Seoul, Sept. 14 (Yonhap News)