Six campers went missing Sunday after being swept away by a sudden rise in the water level of the Imjin River, which flows along the border separating the two Koreas. Three bodies have been found, and now it seems that the North has admitted that it deliberately released water from a dam on its side of the border following what it described as a “surge” along the river.
Local authorities had suspected that water may have been released from the dam because water levels at the Imjin Bridge surged to 4.7 meters (15.4 feet), almost double its normal 2.4-meter level, even though there had been very little rain in the area prior to that. This was a strong indication that North Korea may have failed once again to notify the South ahead of a planned water discharge. Unannounced releases of water by the North caused flooding in South Korea in 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2006.
At inter-Korean economic talks in 2003, the North agreed to inform the South of any changes to the water levels in the Imjin River that could affect the South. In 2005, the country apologized for causing flooding in the South and promised to give notice before opening the floodgates in the future. Clearly, it has not kept its word.
According to the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, adopted by the United Nations in 1997, a country must notify its neighboring countries of actions that could cause “significant harm.” The country is also obligated to discuss compensation for damage suffered with the countries concerned.
The North seems undisturbed about the three deaths it has caused following this most recent incident, but it should take responsibility for its actions. The authorities on our side should also take responsibility for repeatedly failing to prevent incidents like these.
There is a water watchtower near the southern border of the Imjin River, but officials working there only have a couple of hours to warn the surrounding regions of Paju and Yeoncheon of impending danger. The South is slated to complete a 7,000-ton flood control reservoir in Gunnam, Gyeonggi in 2010 and the 270-million-ton Hantan Dam in 2012 to combat massive influxes of water from the North. But these devices may be powerless, given that the four dams along the Imjin River on the North Korean side have a combined reserve capacity of more than 500 million tons.
If the North again decides to open its floodgates without providing us with advance warning, we could once again experience flash flooding or water shortages. We also cannot rule out the possibility that the North is using its dams for military purposes.