A UNITED Nations treaty intended to bring peace and fairness to the use of the world's oceans is instead prompting a nasty spat between South Korea and Japan over a pair of small, inhospitable islands.
Although a South Korean destroyer and several aircraft yesterday conducted exercises in the Sea of Japan near the islands, it is unlikely that the dispute will turn violent. Officials in Tokyo this week ruled out the use of force.
The heart of this disagreement is economic. Both countries want sovereignty over the isles in order to maximize the fishing and mineral rights they can claim under the treaty, known formally as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The treaty recently exacerbated a disagreement between Greece and Turkey over an island in the Aegean Sea. Similarly, Beijing and Tokyo are arguing, albeit quietly, over a group of islands in the East China Sea.
South Korea and Japan are fighting partly because their relations often seem to be a diplomatic enactment of Murphy's Law: If something can go wrong, it will. Until 1945, Japan was a brutal colonizer of the Korean Peninsula, a history that continues to inflame animosities.
Called Tokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese, and the Liancourt Rocks in English, the volcanic isles are situated some 90 miles off each nation's shore. They may be crucial in demarcating the so-called exclusive economic zones (EEZ) provided for under the UN Law of the Sea treaty.
Japan and South Korea ''want the rocks so they can move the line,'' says Mark Valencia, an academic who specializes in maritime issues at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
Both countries claim the islands because their sailors and fishermen used them as rest stops centuries ago. South Korea has the advantage of controlling the islands now. Seoul has stationed Coast Guard officials on the rocky outcroppings since 1956. Japan has often asserted its rights to the islands and sent its own Coast Guard to patrol the area. The dispute flared last week as Japan moved closer to ratifying the UN treaty.
Korean President Kim Young Sam affirmed plans to build a wharf on the islands, causing the Japanese foreign minister to reiterate Tokyo's claim. That in turn brought a rebuke from President Kim. Demonstrators have marched in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, demanding Tokyo apologize for a policy that, to them, evokes Japanese colonialism.
Roughly 85 nations have ratified the Law of the Sea, a pact that was initiated in the early 1970s in order to share the resources of the oceans as equitably as possible among nations rich and poor. During many years of negotiation it became more of a ''sea grab'' by coastal states, says Mr. Valencia, but remains an ambitious example of international lawmaking.
The treaty sets rules for everything from dumping garbage in the oceans to the protection of the marine environment. It bestows on coastal nations a territorial water limit of 12 miles, an exclusive economic zone extending 200 miles, and mineral rights over the continental shelf.
The Japanese government plans to introduce bills of ratification in parliament next month, and officials hope to have the treaty ratified before summer. South Korea's National Assembly ratified the pact last December, but the government has not yet declared an EEZ. The South Korean reticence may stem from the territorial and fishing disputes such a move would cause with China, North Korea, and Japan.
All the countries of Northeast Asia have aggressive fleets of fisherman who complain about the incursions of rival boats into their waters. Authorities in Tokyo and Seoul face pressure from fishermen who want their governments to use the Law of the Sea to aid their industry.
The disputed islands issue comes into play because it might allow the nation that successfully proves sovereignty to draw a larger EEZ, thereby expanding access to fish and minerals in the seabed.
The treaty requires that islands used in calculating an EEZ must be able to sustain human habitation. Although the islands appear on television reports as a desolate place mainly appealing to birds, a South Korean fisherman and his wife reportedly live on there, along with a Coast Guard contingent. ''I think Takeshima actually can sustain some human habitation,'' says a Japanese Foreign Ministry official who requests anonymity.
''Both countries,'' says Yozo Yokota, a professor of international law at Tokyo University, ''seem to think they could make them inhabitable just for the purpose of marking the EEZ.''
Professor Yokota, who serves the UN as a monitor of human rights in Burma, says the Japanese government wants to ratify quickly in order to become ''an influential member'' of various decisionmaking panels that are being created under the pact.
''In Japan's experience,'' he says, ''a latecomer to a regime or an institution always has a handicap.''
South Korea has so far refrained from declaring an EEZ. But its leaders have shown much less restraint in criticizing Japan. In part, that is due to the upcoming parliamentary elections Kim's party faces. ''If Kim passes his opportunity to confront [Japan], he will appear very weak before the elections,'' says Hwang Soo-Woong, an editorial board member of the English-language Korea Times.
Experts say that the island disputes in East Asia and elsewhere are an ironic and unfortunate byproduct of a pact designed to lessen conflict. Nonetheless, says Yokota, ''The settlement of the [Japan-South Korea] issue by international adjudication may be the best solution.''