South Korea to Extend Defense Zone in Reaction to China

South Korea will extend its air-defense identification zone to cover islands and an underwater rock, a move that threatens to exacerbate tensions after China control over airspace claimed by neighbors.

The extension will take effect Dec. 15 and will include Socotra Rock, which is disputed by China and South Korea, as well the islands of Hongdo and Marado that already fall within Japan’s own air-defense zone, Defense Ministry policy official Jang Hyuk said yesterday at a briefing in Seoul.

“We reached the decision prudently after consultations with various groups and related ministries so we may guarantee our maximum national interest as a sovereign nation,” South Korean President Park Geun Hye told her aides today at a meeting, according to a statement on the presidential website.

Tensions have risen in the East China Sea since China announced Nov. 23 it would introduce the zone that covers areas in which it is in disputes with Japan and South Korea. The U.S., South Korea and Japan have all run unannounced military flights through the area in a test of Chinese resolve.

“South Korea’s announcement was not surprising, it was a tit-for-tat action” for the Chinese move, Robert Kelly, an international relations professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, said by phone. “Tensions will rise and continue for years, now with three nations’ overlapping zones.”


South Korea notified China about its expansion, and China expresses regret about the decision, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing today. China will keep communicating with South Korea and hopes the two sides can “meet half way,” Hong said.

South Korea expanding its air defense zone into the areas of other nations may lead to controversy and tension, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement yesterday.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said South Korea notified it in advance of the move and he didn’t see any immediate issue with the expansion. Relations between the two countries remain strained by lingering resentment over Japan’s occupation of Korea before and during World War II. Park has declined to meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe without a stronger apology for Japan’s use of Korean sex slaves and other wrongdoing during the occupation.

The U.S., which drew the original air defense zone for South Korea in 1951, said it appreciated the Park government’s “efforts to pursue this action in a responsible, deliberate fashion by prior consultations” with the U.S., Japan and China, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in an e-mail.

Research Station

China rejected South Korea’s demand on Nov. 28 to readjust its air zone to exclude Socotra Rock, where South Korea has built a a research station and heliport. Both countries claim it as part of their exclusive economic zones. The submerged rock, called Ieodo in Korean and Suyan Rock in Chinese, also falls under Japan’s air defense zone.

The new South Korean zone matches the country’s flight information zone set by the International Civil Aviation Organization and thus eliminates the need for civilian airlines to report flight plans separately, Jang said yesterday.

“As for worries over China’s air defense identification zone, civilian airlines can independently take measures deemed necessary for their safety,” he said without elaborating.

Last week, South Korea conducted daily surveillance flights over Socotra Rock, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said today at a briefing. The government expects consultations with neighbors affected by the new zone after it takes effect because it may take time to arrange such dialogue, Kim said.

Chinese Leaders

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Dec. 6 in Seoul that he had told Chinese leaders during his trip to Beijing that China’s declaration wouldn’t affect U.S. military operations in the region even as it increased the risk of miscalculations. Japan has also run unannounced military flights through the area in a test of Chinese resolve.

China has more than doubled defense spending since 2006 and continues to modernize its forces, even as the U.S. dedicates more military resources to the Asia-Pacific and Japan expands its own navy.

The relative gap indicates China -- which also is advancing naval deployments in waters it claims in the South China Sea -- may be constrained to challenge incursions over East China Sea airspace.

As China gathers strength in the Asia-Pacific, it faces competition with a much larger U.S. military -- whose air force alone has more than 400 surveillance planes compared with 100 in all China’s armed forces -- as the Obama administration conducts what it calls a rebalance to the region.

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