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[NOTEBOOK]Drawing a Firm Line in the Sea

June 05,2001
"We allowed the North Korean ship to pass South Korean territorial waters just this once. The government will vigorously confront any reoccurrence of such an incident," the Ministry of Defense announced in a statement Sunday afternoon.

The government released the statement after holding an emergency meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the issue after three North Korean commercial ships trespassed in South Korean waters.

Yet, North Korean vessels again violated the Northern Limit Line - the military demarcation line - in the seas both to the east and west of the peninsula in the morning on Monday when not even a day had passed since the last infringement. But the military changed its words. "The government permission granted yesterday covers this violation," said a ministry official.

By making this announcement, the government has confused the right of innocent passage through the Cheju Strait recognized by international law with violation of the Northern Limit Line and infiltration of South Korean waters, which were once a zone of hostility.

And yet, the South Korean military seemed lost for words after discovering that the North sent another commercial vessel into the Cheju Strait on Monday afternoon, asserting its right to enter.

On Sunday afternoon, when the situation became an emergency, the mobile phone of a Blue House senior official involved in the affair was turned off. His secretary said that her boss had gone home early because it was a Sunday.

We do understand the South Korean government's determination to keep the situation calm, given that it has been trying its best to reopen talks with the North which have been stalled since March. However, has not the government continually promised people that its North Korean policy will always be bolstered by an immovable concern for national security?

The recent crisis has certainly raised serious anxieties among many people, particularly conservatives, as to what will happen next in relation to national security issues. The government should have kept these fears in mind and provided a detailed explanation to assuage them.

The offhand infiltration of the Northern Limit Line by a commercial vessel caused the military to mutely grieve. Despite such a deplorable situation, the unification minister only got round to sending a letter to Kim Yong-sun, chairman of the North Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (considered a civilian organization of the North) on Monday afternoon.

We urge government officials to listen to the words of Park Choon-ho, a judge with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. As he said, "The government is using stop-gap measures to deal with these recent events." He counseled that, "A cold and decisive measure is necessary to draw a firm, sharp line between international laws and the special relationship between the North and the South."

Seoul must heed this if it wants to avoid having to grope for words repeatedly after falling into traps set by the North.



The writer is a reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Lee Young-jong




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