Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Zhang Xinsen gets into his car after a meeting with a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Monday. Zhang was called into the ministry over the diplomatic spat concerning Chinese territorial claims regarding South Korea’s submerged Ieodo reef. / Yonhap
By Kang Hyun-kyung
President Lee Myung-bak said Monday that Ieodo, a submerged reef 4.6 meters below sea level south of Jeju Island, is not the subject of a territorial dispute between South Korea and China.
With the remarks, President Lee built up pressure on China to admit the reef belongs to South Korea.
In a speech delivered at a forum hosted by the Korea News Editors’ Association, Lee stressed that the nature of the issue was not a territorial dispute.
“Should a certain type of dispute occur near the waters off Jeju Island, this will give a serious blow to our economy,” he said. “It is a sensitive issue, but I believe Ieodo will be recognized as being under our sovereignty if the government discusses the matter with China.”
He made the remarks amid a possible diplomatic row over Ieodo which erupted after a Chinese official’s remarks in early March.
In an interview with Xinhua News Agency on March 3, Liu Cigui, director of China’s State Oceanic Administration, said his agency had launched a monitoring system of surveillance vessels and aircraft for the waters surrounding the reef on which Korea has built an ocean research station.
The Chinese official’s remarks caused a stir among South Koreans after a local media reported it Saturday.
On Monday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade called in Zhang Xinsen, Chinese ambassador to South Korea, to protest Liu’s remarks.
Asking for anonymity, a foreign ministry official told reporters that Seoul delivered an unmistakable message to the Chinese envoy that it can’t accept China’s claims to the reef, maintaining that it is part of South Korea’s territory.
South Korea has maintained that Ieodo lies within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as it sits on the Korean side of the equidistant line and the reef is located on the Korean section of the continental shelf.
The dispute emerged again this week following the Chinese government’s claim over the territory back in 2008 on its website.
The government demanded China drop the claim, which was later accepted by Beijing.
South Korea established the Ieodo Ocean Research Station on the reef with state-of-the-art ocean, weather and environment observation systems that were built to collect and provide information needed for ocean and weather forecasts, fishery forecasts and responses to global environmental challenges on a real-time basis.
During the meeting with top editors from major local newspapers and journalists, President Lee also urged China again to stop repatriating North Korean defectors.
Lee said this was a human rights issue and about universal values, saying he requested China to deal with the defectors issue in accordance with international norms.
China’s repatriation of North Korean defectors has become an international issue as human rights activists and bloggers around the world joined Seoul’s call for Beijing to stop this.