South Korean War with Chinese Poachers
Against the backdrop of the incident involving the apprehension of North Korean poachers which is now being discussed in the Russian media (one person injured on the Russian side, one person killed and eight persons injured on the other side) and might seem to be an unprecedented escalation of the conflict, it is worth mentioning the similar “front” between South Korea and China that accompanies the deterioration of relations due to the THAAD issue.
There has never been a lack of notable incidents in this area, especially after October 2014, when the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel died when being apprehended by the South Korean coast guard, so we are going to refer to the events which took place recently.
The latest incident at the time of writing this article happened in the Yellow Sea on October 2, 2016, when a Chinese fishing vessel crashed into the patrol boat of the South Korean coast guard. Caught by the 4.5 ton South Korean patrol boat undertaking illegal fishing, the 100-ton fishing vessel launched an attack. The incident took place 76 km to the south-west of Socheong Island of Ongjin County, Incheon. Nobody died, but the patrol boat finally went down.
The Administration of the Korean president regretted this incident. On 11 October the Korean Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Hyoung-zhin delivered the protest note to Qiu Guohong, the Chinese Ambassador to Seoul, and demanded more efforts from China, in order to avoid similar incidents in the future. The leader of the ruling Saenuri party Lee Jung-hyun compared this incident with war. On 12 October he visited the quay to see the arrested Chinese vessel, pointed out the need for drastic actions due to the life-threatening danger for the coast guard officers and proposed to the Ministry of the Interior of the Korean Republic that the incident and the related issues should be discussed with China at a high-level meeting, in view of the fact that the existing problem may lead to a diplomatic conflict in the future. It is evident that the degree of tensions is significantly higher.
A further two Chinese fishing vessels were arrested in Korea for poaching in the same period. On 12 October the coast guard apprehended a Chinese vessel out at sea to the south-west from Jeju Island. The fishermen had caught about 10 tons of fish in Korean waters, but their documents stated and limited the catch to 100 kilograms. In the other case the fishermen had caught about 6 tons, with their documents limiting them to 600 kilograms.
In view of the recent events, China decided to suspend cooperation in this area. The joint inspection in relation to Chinese poachers illegally fishing in the South Korean water was originally scheduled for 19 October but then cancelled. The officers of the Korean and Chinese border guard services have been carrying out such inspections since 2006, but after the death of the Chinese captain this practice may stop.
It must be said however, that the assault on the North Korean ship is closely akin to the incident which happened on September 27, 2016 in the Yellow Sea, 70 km to the south-west from Sinan, South Jeolla province. The Chinese trawler was illegally fishing in the South Korean exclusive economic area and tried to escape to neutral waters immediately after the boat of the Korean coast guard service appeared. Special operations troops used a high-speed powerboat to reach the poachers; following that, the Chinese fishermen locked themselves inside the vessel, and the Korean side started to throw flashbangs at it for no apparent reason. This resulted in a fire, and three out of the fourteen crewmembers suffocated. The investigation is still ongoing, but it is highly likely that nobody will be punished. After the Chinese poachers killed a coast guard officer on duty in 2011, the authorities of South Korea have significantly expanded the powers of the coast guard service, relaxed the weapon employment procedure and allowed them to fire in self-defense should there the situation be life-threatening
These conflicts have a “North Korean” aspect. South Korea assumes (and intelligence officers have mentioned) that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might have sold fishing rights covering the inter-Korean sea border to China, all the more so because the military preparations carried out by South Korea on the pretext of combating Chinese poachers is a source of annoyance for Pyongyang. Thus, on 27 June, North Korea demanded that the provocative acts in the Hangang river mouth should be immediately stopped. According to the Korean central information agency, the truce agreement of 1953 declared this area a neutral zone which cannot be accessed by warships without special permission. On 20 June Pyongyang called South Korea’s actions “inexcusable military provocation”.
The issue however relates to the disputable area of the sea border: the so-called northern demarcation line was drawn by the American force command on a unilateral basis and remains unrecognized by Pyongyang, thus causing a permanent source of tensions and disputes. Because of this, the fishermen of both Koreas try not to go there, which cannot be said about the poachers.
In other words, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been accused of provocation as usual and the potential use of marine troops and warships against poachers hasn’t been ruled out. South Korea assumes that its actions are not contrary to the truce agreement, but Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn discussed the problem of poaching with his vis-à-vis Li Keqiang at approximately the same time. On June 28, 2016, in the course of negotiations in Beijing, the head of the South Korean government protested against the actions carried out by the Chinese poachers and urged the Chinese government to take severe measures in relation to the Chinese fishermen who are illegally fishing on a large scale in South Korean waters. He mentioned that the arrangements reached back in 2012 require GPS to be installed on all fishing vessels in order to prevent and avoid any border violations. Li Keqiang on his part stated that Beijing was greatly concerned about the exhaustion of living marine resources due to uncontrolled fishing. He said that the relevant agencies shall take the required measures, including employing a greater number of inspectors. Together with that, he pointed to difficulties in controlling the high number of fishing vessels operating in the Yellow Sea.
Parallel to that, KBS TV “found out” the price at which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sells fishing rights to China. The issue however relates not to the Yellow, but to the Japanese Sea. According to the documents shown, the fee is 18 thousand USD with the contract allowing access for up to 300 Chinese fishing vessels to the established area of 35,000 square kilometers. It is a trifling matter in terms of the attempts to isolate the North from any currency sources, but the South is doing its best. Moreover, the poachers should indeed be dealt with, but the problem is unlikely to be settled.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.
The article, "South Korean War with Chinese Poachers", was syndicated from and first appeared at: http://journal-neo.org/2016/10/22/south-korean-war-with-chinese-poachers/.
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