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ICE Case Studies: Korea - Japan Fish Dispute
April 23, 2002
by Kunwoo Kim


1. Abstract

           Since 1998,there has been an incessant negotiation between Republic of Korea and Japan over the issue of the fishing boundary between two countries. The location, which Korea officially calls the "East Sea" and Japan calls the "Sea of Japan," is one of the most important fishing fields for both countries. Even though the line between the countries were lain in 1965, the lines were not specifically settled between countries, but rather each side claimed their own territory by announcing an unilateral line.  Until the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea took effect in 1994, which the treaty increased exclusive economic zone to 200 miles, states had sovereignty in a 12-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.  As a result, fishing boats from each country have ignored the virtual line between the two countries and there has been a fierce competition of catching the fish which nearly depleted the fishing region during the 80's and 90's.


2. Description

           Historical Background

In 1998, Japan unilaterally abolished the Fishery Agreement between Korea and Japan that had been held since 1965 between the two countries. Japan's withdrawal from the agreement was intended to claim Japan's Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) which entered into force in accordance with the United Nation's Convention on the Law of the Sea. (UNCLS Website)  Based on the Convention, which took effect in1994, 123 countries among 151 sea bordering countries promulgated their exclusive economic zones. According to the convention, coastal states have sovereign rights in a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with respect to natural resources and certain economic activities.

Since 1998, there had been long standing negotiation between Republic of Korea and Japan over the issue of fishing boundary between two countries. Tension has escalated between the two countries and became to be an environmental issue when the fishing region became nearly a barren region due to an excessive fishing by both countries. Even though the two countries had agreed to solve the matter before the commencement of 2002 the FIFA World Cup this summer, the discussion on the eastern limit of fishing in the East Sea, or Sea of Japan, had made little progress until last year. With Korea sticking to its earlier position of 136 degrees east, Japan was insisting on 135 degrees east. Even though it was not easy to reach an imminent agreement on the issue through on-going working-level talks, officials from both sides insisted that the atmosphere for the successful conclusion of the fishing talks is favorable because the two nations' political circles have laid the foundation for the improvement of mutual understanding.

2002 Fishery Pact of Korea and Japan

South Korea's fishing quota for next year in Japan's exclusive economic zone has been reduced to 89,773 tons, 20,000 tons less than this year. The figure is the same for Japanese fishermen operating in South Korean waters. Korea and Japan also agreed on the quota of fishing boats in each other's waters, 1,395 for 12 types of marine products, lower than this year's figure, 1,864.


The Quota of Fishing Boats in Each Other’s Waters




Product Type

Number of Boats

Quota (tons)

Korean Fishing Boats Allowed in Japanese EEZ

White Fish and other 14 marine products.

1,567 boats

149,200 tons

Japanese Fishing Boats Allowed in Korean EEZ

Squid and other 15 marine products.

1,575 boats



The two countries' officials agreed on the conditions in Seoul in January 2002, wrapping up nine rounds of negotiations.  As the two countries concurred on the mutual quota application, Seoul has to lower its quota by 20,000 tons and Tokyo must do the same by 4,000 tons in order to balance the amount of marine products the two countries catch each year.  This year, South Korea has caught 23,000 tons of fish in Japanese waters, while Japan has caught 15,000 tons in Korean waters. The sums are far below the quotas set for next year. South Korean fishing boats can conduct operations in Sanriku waters, near the Kuriles, with a quota of 9,000 tons. But they must remain 35 sea miles off Japan's coast, outside an area that is known to abound in marine products. In case large quantities are not caught by next October, the two parties plan to adjust the fishing zone, leaving the possibility that fishing will be allowed within the 35-mile area.



Fishing Industry Output









February 1999





January 2002





Percentage Change







Korean Fishing Industry Need a new Direction

The Korean industry is teetering on the brink with depleting marine products and debt-ridden fishing households. First of all, fishing near the coastline is deadlocked as conditions for fishing areas, both manpower and capital, are at their worst ever. The rate of production per one ton of fishing boat has fallen sharply from 4.8 tons in 1975, 50 3.5 tons in 1996 and only 3 tons in 1999. The decreasing fishing industry population is additional headache for the industry. Since 1970, the fishing population has dropped by an annual 4.2 percent to 170,000 in 1999. The figure is less than half of what it was in the 1970s. Moreover, more than 100,000 of the total population are older than 50. As a result the Korean fishing industry needs a new direction in its survival strategy. (See figure 1),







Lagging Technology

Korean fishermen have been slow in focusing on creating high added value to boost competitiveness. They are still fishing indiscriminately and old business practices are still prevalent. Korea Maritime Institute associate research fellow Shin Young-Tae said, "Most fishermen do not conduct their operations based on elaborate business plans but based on their own experience, know-how and rough estimates. Fishermen need to adopt scientific management tools as the fishery business environment is rapidly changing." The Korean government set up a center for securing marines resources and has been trying to improve the marine environment to assist the fishermen. However, according to fishery business expert, despite these governmental efforts to help the fishery industry, Korean fishermen have a long way to go before they catch up with their Japanese counterparts.

Japan's Technology Oriented Solution

Japan has already completed its transition from a catching to a breeding industry. While Japan is making advances in its fishing technologies, South Korea is lagging far behind Japan. In Japan, the government releases millions of fries into surrounding waters. Even though the chances of a fry becoming a mature fish are slim, approximately 15 out of every 100, the practice is said to be a highly profitable investment. Japan has developed a supersonic wave-emitting device to lure fries into a certain direction as one measure to increase the survival ratio. (Ministry of Maritime Affairs & Fisheries)

To deal with the crisis, the Korean government announced that the government would raise the ratio of the fishing cultivating industry from 30 percent into 43 percent.  South Korea needs to develop some species with high added value for breeding, even though they will have to import some technology as well as new management.

Facing Subsidy Cut

Fishermen need to adopt scientific management tools as the business environment around the industry is changing rapidly. The recent World Trade Organization negotiations at Doha also anticipated this transition.  The new regulations agreed on in the round ruled that member countries should considerably reduce their subsidies to the fishing industry. The proposed round also forces governments to take fishing-regulating measures such as imposing quotas on the total fishing production. Surrounded by such negative factors and environment, the only hope for the industry is effective management in line with the government effort and direction.

In a bid to help the battered industry the Korean government is providing 63.5 billion won, approximately $500 million, in subsidies to its marine products industry and the figure is about 10 percent of its total production. However, subsidies sustaining the already battered Korean fishing industry are likely to be reduced as members of the WTO agreed for the reduction (in negotiations at Doha) to cut the volume of the subsidies to under 5 percent of the total production of each member countries' fishing industry. The figure of 5 percent, which is 50% less than the current subsidy in South Korea, is based on a WTO regulation that more than that rate of subsidies by one country is regarded as damaging other trade partners. The issue was first raised during the fourth ministerial talks in Doha, Qatar late last year, as a group of fisheries exporting countries, nicknamed "Fish Friends Group", contended that the subsidies should be cut.


           Fishery Agreement and the disputed island: Tokdo.

For decades, the territorial dispute with Japan over Tokdo islands in East Sea (or Sea of Japan) has posed a major diplomatic challenge to Korea and Japan. The island is under Korea's control, though Japan has claimed its territorial right over it for centuries.  Tokdo further provides an illustration of two neighboring nations reaching consensus regarding their fishing rights in overlapping economic zones regardless of a territorial dispute. The 1999 Korea-Japan fisheries agreement deals exclusively with fishing activities by the two countries without mentioning their territorial rights. Waters near Tokdo Island between Japan and Korea were designated as neutral, but some civic groups asserted that this designation is equivalent to a loss of sovereignty. The maritime ministry plans to maintain the neutral zone around Tokdo until the future over the disputed islet settles down. As a result, the Korean government faced severe criticism from the public for its "lenient" attitude in handling important territorial matters.  Lost sovereignty over the disputed island has been a matter of national pride to many Japanese as well. But it is also true that Japan's claim is not fully justified in view of the geopolitical developments in the area over the last century. Many historians share the view that it is an issue demanding political compromise.





In accordance with the rapidly changing international marine environment, Korea has been harmonizing its relevant domestic laws with the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. Korea has been participating in the process to establish a stable maritime order in the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula. Fishery negotiation with Japan is one example how Korea is willing to participate to build a more sound relationship with rest of the world.  However, the decision and the new environment are expected to hit fishermen hard. Surrounded by such negative factors, the only hope for the industry is effective management. The experts point out that innovative measures are required in every area of the business, from funding to production and sale. The government needs to encourage scientific management to conserve marine resources, and attention must be given to the destitute fishing households during the future industry restructuring.


3. Duration: In Progress (1997 – Now)

History of Korea – Japan Fishery Negotiation.




Korean Japan Fish Agreement: Unilateral Line


U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea took effect.


Both countries ratifying the UN convention


Japan’s Unilateral Withdraw from the 1965 Agreement


Korea’s withdraw from the Agreement


Ministerial talks to initiate a round of fish negotiations


New Fish Agreement signed between two countries after 7 negotiatins


Both countries congress refuse to ratify the agreement and another round of negotiations started.


4. Location

a.      Continent: Asia


b. Region: East Asia               c. State: South Korea and Japan: The East Sea is a marginal sea adjoining the North Pacific through the Korean Strait in the south, and through the Tsugaru, Soya and Tartar Straits in the north of the sea. Shaped in rectangular pattern with the total area of 1.008Χ106㎢ and a mean depth of 1684m which is wider and deeper than the Yellow Sea, the South Sea of Korea.             

(Satellite Picture)                               (Disputed Area – East Sea)



5. Actors Directly Involved Actor: South Korea and Japan.



II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Source Problem (Fish)


7. Type of Habitat: Ocean


8. Act and Harm Sites:

Site of Act

Site of Harm



East Sea or Sea of Japan

Fishery Depletion


East Sea or Sea or Japan

Fishery Depletion



III. Conflict Aspects


9. Type of Conflict: Interstate.


10. Level of Conflict

a)    Intrastate: High

b)    Interstate: Medium


11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities): 0 (zero)



IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap


12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Indirect.

There is an internal and external issue concerning the fishery negotiations.  This issue is the matter of efficiency (sound diplomatic relationship with neighboring Japan) versus equity (protecting the domestic fish industry) Fishery Negotiations has been held between official national representatives from both countries.  Each government’s task to maintain a good relationship with one of the most important trading partner while satisfying the already battered fish industry at the same time is not an east task.  Upper section of the diagram depicts the bilateral relationship between the two countries.  Lower section of the diagram depicts how the fish industry is affected by the fishery negotiation and how they pressure their governments to step up and protect their interest through the negotiations.  There is a circle of relationship illustrated through the diagram.

Governments engaged in negotiations -> Result affect the fish industry directly -> Interest groups put pressure on governments to protect their rights -> and then the governments engage in another negotiations to represent their domestic interest.

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Regional

14. Outcome of Dispute: Compromise

V. Related Information and Sources


15. Related ICE Cases

·         NICARAGUA-HONDURAS Nicaragua and Honduras Territorial Dispute, by Rebeccca DeMar (June 2002)

·         KURILE Kurile Islands Dispute (November, 1997)

·         FALK The Falklands/Malvinas Conflict and Oil, by Sebastian Pawlowski (May, 1997)

·         DIAYOU Diaoyou Islands Dispute, by Cheng-China Huang (June, 1997)

·         SPRATLY Spratly Islands Dispute and Oil, by Jay Krasnow (May, 1997)

·         ABUMUSA Abu Musa Island, Sovereignty Claims and Environmental Resources (Link to TED case 369), by W. Corbett Dabbs (January 1997)



16. Relevant Websites and Literature