[TODAY]A Western Sheriff and the Korean NavyNorth Korea must still remember the "naval war" of two years ago near Yeonpyong Island that saw its navy suffer a humiliating defeat. The conflict was caused by North Korea's sinister scheme to nullify the Northern Limit Line, directly related to the armistice agreement, and draw a new demarcation line in the sea.
This time North Korea sent cargo ships as far as the Cheju Strait in a bold violation of Seoul's territorial waters and the NLL. In some American western movies, the outlaws ride out of the wilderness into town, wreak havoc and disappear in a stately parade over the horizon at sunset. In those movies, the sheriff took no action against the trouble-makers, just as our navy did when North Korean commercial ships intruded into our territorial waters. But there is a striking difference: The sheriff did not dare to confront the outlaws all by himself, while the Korean Navy restrained from using the physical force available to it.
But then the government recognized the non-action of the navy as proper under the circumstances, and hurriedly approved the intrusion of the ships. Even before its announcement, the government had sent a silent message to the North: "If you give us advance notice, we will let you pass."
North Korea seems to have counted on a different reaction than it saw in the Yellow Sea two years ago, and they were right. The Korean government approached this weird situation with extreme care lest the fragile Joint Declaration of June 15, 2000 be ruined by measures that might displease the North.
It is a near-national consensus that rapprochement, no matter how desirable it may be, should go in parallel with strong national security measures. This wisdom has been used so much that it sounds almost rhetorical. The intrusion by North Korean commercial ships is a serious and concrete incident that needs to be dealt with something more than empty slogans. Representative Kang Chang-sung from the Grand National Party asked the right question at the Defense Committee of the National Assembly: "What if North Korean civilian airplanes fly into the air space over Seoul now that we have allowed commercial ships allegedly carrying rice to intrude into our territorial waters?"
The most regrettable part of the whole incident is that because of the government's hasty measures not to displease North Korea, we have lost a good occasion to reach a meaningful agreement for building mutual trust by solving urgent matters at hand.
The Korean government now says the right of innocent passage by North Korean ships in South Korean territorial waters is negotiable. Since North Korea transports large quantities of goods between the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and the Yellow Sea, it will see significant economic gains by shortening the sea route through the Cheju Strait.
The NLL is a totally different matter. North Korea's intention itself is different. It seeks to invalidate the armistice agreement by changing the NLL. They have never changed their stance even after the June 15 summit. They simply have refrained from provocations for the last year. Thus, it is right to deal with the matters of the Cheju Strait and the NLL separately.
The government probably could have made North Korea come forward to the dialogue table by raising a question to North Korea with a strong protest as well as immediately dispatching naval vessels to the scene with force sufficient to show the North Koreans that their ships could be stopped. Actual use of force would not have been necessary. But the government reversed those steps.
North Korea must have been encouraged when the National Security Council made it publicly known that North Korean ships would be allowed to pass through the Cheju Strait if they give notice in advance. The council also in effect endorsed North Korea's intentional violation of South Korea's territorial waters. We do not care if North Korea is encouraged by the generous measures taken by the Seoul government. But it is not pleasant to watch North Korea acquiring the right of innocent passage in our waters while keeping its military demarcation line in the East Sea and the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone intact.
The South Korean government deserves to be harshly criticized for having given in too easily and not using its negotiating leverage with the North. North Korean ships retreated to international waters as abruptly as they came in. Nobody knows for sure if and when they will come back to sow more confusion by criss-crossing our territorial waters and NLL. They come and go at their own will, not paying much attention to the cries of the media and politicians for a stiffer response toward their provocative actions.
The bizarre behavior by North Korea could be due to the insecurity it feels about the uncertainty of America's North Korea policy and its expected negative effect on South Korea's sunshine policy. That is one reason for us to stay within the boundary of the sunshine policy even when we deal with an individual matter like the intrusion of territorial waters by North Korean ships.
The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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