[NOTEBOOK]Japan's Claim to Kuril Waters Is Fishy

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[NOTEBOOK]Japan's Claim to Kuril Waters Is Fishy

Another flurry of dark clouds is looming over Korea-Japan relations following the conflict over Japanese history textbooks. This time, it's a dispute over fishing in waters around four of the southernmost Kuril islands.

Looking behind the scenes at the Kuril islands dispute, I cannot shake the impression that Japan's conduct here has been particularly stubborn. The southernmost Kuril islands have been the subject of a territorial dispute between Russia and Japan since the end of World War II.

In 1945, the islands were occupied by the Soviet Union and have been administered since its collapse by Russia.

However, Japan insists it has a claim to the Islands.

Korean boats fishing for saury have long trawled the waters near the islands with Russia's agreement. Even after the Japanese government unilaterally proclaimed the waters as its exclusive economic zone in January 1999, Korean private companies made fishing contracts with Russian companies and Korea continued to fish the waters. The Japanese government did not protest the contract nor fishing activities in the areas.

However, the troubles began when Korea changed the legal status of fishing in the waters by signing a governmental fisheries agreement with Russia in December 2000. Japan insisted that Korea had "violated Japanese sovereignty" and took retaliatory measures against Korea.

But what the Japanese government says over the issue is absurd and self-contradictory. Japanese fishing boats have been paying a fee to the Russian government every year to fish the waters, in effect negating the Japanese claims to sovereignty. Japan insists that the money is "not a fishing fee but a contribution to cooperative funds to conserve maritime resources" in the area.

But whatever Japan claims the money constitutes, in practice it is a fishing fee and in practice it means Japan admits Russian jurisdiction - and sovereignty - over the waters.

Therefore, Japan's attempts to block Korean fishing in the area are trumped up and incoherent. It is traditional practice internationally for those who wish to fish in disputed waters to gain permission from the state that holds actual jurisdiction over the area, regardless of other claims of dominium.

The Falkland islands were the focus of a war between Britain and Argentina in 1982. The British won. Ever since, fishing fees have been paid to the British government because it has official jurisdiction over the area.

I think there are two main reasons why Japan has insisted doggedly that Korean fishing boats are violating its territorial waters in the waters near the southern Kuril islands.

First, Takebe Tsutomu, the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, is leading the crusade against Korean fishermen. He comes from Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island that adjoins the waters around the southern Kuril islands.

The minister is under a lot of pressure from Hokkaido fishermen, which is one of the reasons why the Japanese government is taking such a confrontational attitude against Korea over the Kuril islands issue these days.

Also, surging nationalistic sentiment in Japanese politics and society is feeding support for Japanese claims to disputed territory such as the four southernmost Kuril islands. Many have suggested that the government is trying to cash in on this sentiment by taking strong measures.

A diplomatic source in Japan said, "I have the feeling that, in order to heighten the nationalistic atmosphere and its own status in Japanese society, the current Japanese government has taken this stubborn attitude against Korea."

I would like to hear Japan make a reasonable explanation for why it has been paying a fishing fee of millions of dollars a year for fishing in waters it claims are its own.


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The writer is a Tokyo correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Dae-young

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