Japan urges South Korea to halt marine survey
TOKYO, July 5 (Reuters) Japan demanded today that South Korea halt a survey of disputed waters between the two nations that started earlier in the day, but Seoul said it had a right to exercise sovereignty over the area.
Tokyo also said it may resurrect its own survey of the waters, which it called off in April following talks with Seoul.
A South Korean survey ship escorted by a patrol boat entered what Japan considers to be its exclusive economic zone near islands at the centre of a territorial dispute between the two countries at about 6:40 a.m. (2140 GMT), Japan's coast guard said.
The islands sit in rich fishing grounds, and South Korea's state gas company says they lie above unexploited gas hydrate deposits potentially worth billions of dollars.
A maritime ministry official in Seoul said the survey ship would likely head back on Thursday after completing the survey.
''The ship is going to do the survey as planned and come back tomorrow around 5 to 6 pm.,'' Park No-jong said by telephone.
Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi summoned South Korean Ambassador Ra Jong-yil to a meeting to lodge a protest against the survey, the foreign ministry said.
Ra told Yachi that Seoul had a right to conduct the survey and the discussion ended without agreement, Japan's top government spokesman Shinzo Abe told a news conference.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso also protested to his South Korean counterpart, Ban Ki-moon, in a telephone conversation later on Wednesday.
The dispute has escalated just as Japanese officials said they wanted to work closely with neighbouring countries to formulate a response to North Korea's launch of a series of missiles earlier in the day.
South Korea and Japan are both parties to six-way talks on Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
DISPUTED SOVEREIGNTY Japan and South Korea came close to a high-seas showdown in April when Tokyo said it planned a survey in waters near the desolate outcrop of islands, called Tokto in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, but tensions eased after talks.
''It is extremely regrettable that South Korea has begun a marine survey in the area where both countries claim exclusive economic rights around Takeshima, despite our requests for cancellation or postponement. We call for an immediate halt,'' Abe said.
Referring to a possible survey by Tokyo, he said, ''Obviously, we believe that we have the right.'' Japan's coast guard said it was tracking the South Korean ships.
''We are observing the ships from alongside and calling on them via radio in Korean to halt the survey,'' a coast guard spokesman said. ''We will continue to do this,'' he added.
South Korean officials said they might cut short the survey because of bad weather, Yonhap news agency said on Tuesday.
Both sides have called for calm over the dispute, and the head of the Japanese coast guard has said Japan will not attempt to seize the ships because this would be a breach of international law.
But Seoul hit back at Tokyo over its protests on Wednesday.
''We express deep regret that Japan requested to stop our marine survey conducted by our ship within our exclusive economic zone,'' the South Korean foreign ministry said in a statement.
''Also we would like to remind Japan that it has to secure South Korea's consent before conducting any marine survey inside South Korea's exclusive economic zone,'' the statement added.
REUTERS CH ND1554