An aerial view of Ieodo research station
By Jon M. Van Dyke
Ieodo (Ieo Island), called Suyan Rock by the Chinese, and Socotra Rock by some Western sources, is a submerged reef 4.6 meters below sea level, located 149 kilometers southwest of Korea’s Marado Island, 394 kilometers east of China’s Haizhao Island, and 440 kilometers from the nearest Japanese island, Torishima.
This reef is submerged at all times, during high and low tide. Under Article 121 of the Law of the Sea Convention, it is not entitled to generate any maritime zones ― territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, or continental shelf ― because it is not above water at high tide.
With regard to the maritime boundary between Korea and China in the Yellow Sea, Korea has taken the position that the equidistant approach should be utilized to draw the maritime boundary between China and Korea in the Yellow Sea.
Because Ieodo is on the Korean side of the equidistant line, Korea views the reef as lying within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Korea also supports its position that Ieodo is rightfully part its territory by asserting that the reef is located on Korea’s continental shelf.
China’s approach to maritime delimitation in the Yellow and East China Seas is based on the natural prolongation principle, and China has argued that Ieodo sits on what it views as its continental shelf, and is thus within the overlapping exclusive economic zones of the two countries.
In 2006, China protested what it called “Korea’s unilateral actions in the area,” referring to the construction of the Ieodo Research Station. Both Korea and China have acknowledged that the station’s presence has no effect on the delimitation of the maritime boundary in this region.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry reported in 2006 that representatives for both countries met to discuss the boundary, but also said that the meetings did not result in an agreement on where or how to the line should be drawn.
Korea’s position that the maritime boundary in the Yellow Sea should be the equidistant line between Korea and China is consistent with recent decisions by the International Court of Justice and arbitral tribunals.
China’s position that the line should follow the natural prolongation of the sea floor, on the other hand, does not have the support of recent decisions and does not appear to apply in any significant geographic way to the Yellow Sea, because (unlike the East China Sea, where the sea floor slopes gradually from China and then drops off sharply at the Okinawa Trough near Japan's small islands) the Yellow Sea has a flat, shallow and relatively featureless sea floor throughout.
The sediments do not shift dramatically from clay to sand, but instead make a gradual transition, and the Yellow Sea includes areas where the sediments mix. It seems likely, therefore, that the equidistance line will emerge as the appropriate maritime boundary between China and Korea and, therefore, that Ieodo will be recognized as a feature within the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of Korea.
Jon M. Van Dyke is a professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He can be reached at email@example.com.