Korea Submits Claim on Continental Shelf Including Okinawa Trough to the U.N.

By Jeon Byeong-yeok
The Kyunghyang Shinmun

On December 26 (local time), the South Korean government submitted a formal report to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) claiming its continental shelf in the East China Sea extends as far as the Okinawa Trough.

According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, if a coastal state claims its continental shelf extends beyond 200 nautical miles, that country must first submit preliminary information to the CLCS and follow up with a report based on further scientific investigation and evaluation.

Earlier, China submitted a report on its continental shelf, which overlaps in many areas with Korea’s continental shelf, and Japan has refused to recognize the two countries’ claims. Conflicts among the three countries are expected since this issue is connected to the territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands (Chinese name: Diaoyudao) between China and Japan and to the development of resources in the East China Sea.

In a recent document China submitted to the UN, China extended the outer limits of their continental shelf in the East China Sea further towards Korea compared to their 2009 preliminary document. China marked Diaoyudao (Japanese name: Senkaku), which Japan has effective control over, as Chinese territory. The yellow line marks the outer limit of the continental shelf. / UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf website

An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on December 27, “The continental shelf in this report is extended by at least 38 kilometers and at most 125 kilometers toward Japan compared with our preliminary report submitted in May 2009.”

When we compare the area outside the 200 nautical miles (1 nautical mile = 1.8 kilometers), the 2009 preliminary report claimed Korea’s continental shelf extended to 19,000 km2 within the Korea-Japan joint development zone (JDZ), but the recent report claimed an area more than twice as large.

The government determined the outer limit of the continental shelf by applying a formula which maximizes the extent of our continental shelf under international law: the government placed the boundary 60 nautical miles beyond the foot of the slope (FOS) within 350 nautical miles from the baseline of the territorial sea. The outer limits of the continental shelf, determined by specifying 85 fixed points, lie 5 nautical miles from Japan’s territorial waters (12 nautical miles).

The latest report is the result of a survey following consultations with related institutions including the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs, the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources, and the Korea Hydrographic and Oceanographic Administration along with private experts.


The official from the foreign ministry explained, “We confirmed that the low-water line, which is the baseline for determining the outer limits of the continental shelf, had shifted further toward Japan than when it was determined by Korea and Japan in 1978, so we were able to extend our continental shelf.”

Korea’s continental shelf specified in the recent report advances further toward Japan than China’s continental shelf specified in their report, which they submitted to the UN on December 14. The government announced that the outer limits of Korea’s continental shelf lie between 27˚27′~30˚37′N and 127˚35′~129˚11′E.

It overlaps with China’s outer limits which lie between 27˚99′~30˚89′N and 127˚62′~129˚17′E. On a map, the boundaries are located in the order of China’s continental shelf, followed by Korea’s continental shelf, and Japan’s territorial limits.

Japan claims 200 nautical miles of continental shelf, because the seafloor makes a steep decline toward the Okinawa Trough right before its islands. However, even if all three countries claimed 200 nautical miles as their territory, the East China Sea does not reach 400 nautical miles. So Japan has been arguing for a boundary of the continental shelf set in the middle.

Despite Korea and China’s reports extending their continental shelf, there will be no immediate benefits since the possibility of these boundaries being recognized is minuscule. This report is more significant as supporting evidence in future negotiations between the two countries and in UN deliberations.

A diplomatic source said, “Although claims by Korea and China overlap, the recent reports by the two countries can be seen as a joint effort to pressure Japan.” The continental shelf issue between China and Japan is intertwined with their territorial disputes over Diaoyudao (Japanese name: Senkaku).

The continental shelf is a sensitive issue, where Korea and China, as well as Korea and Japan, may clash over marine exploration and development of resources such as oil and natural gas in the East China Sea. The continental shelf claimed by both China and Japan include areas within the Korea-Japan joint development zone. Korea has shown interest in the seventh mining area here judging there’s a possibility of oil or natural gas reserves.

The UN-CLCS makes recommendations, but their decisions are not legally binding. The commission is unable to review the report if any involved party disputes the claim. In the end, Korea, China, and Japan will have to settle the issue through negotiations.

If disputes over history get entangled into the issue over territory and resources, a solution will be far away. The report will be made public on the UN website for three months during which related countries may appeal. It is likely the report will be on the UN commission’s agenda for its meeting in July next year.

The foreign ministry official said, “The trilateral negotiations will not be easy since it will be difficult to yield even 1 centimeter. It took China and Vietnam 30 years to agree to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the early 2000s. It will be difficult to find a solution other than through long-term negotiations and political decisions.”


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