[Viewpoint]Hold the line
There is a Korean proverb that says, “some people will go to a house of mourning and spend the night wailing, then ask the name of the deceased person the next morning.”The point is that people often miss the most important aspect of an issue when they pick one side without understanding the whole situation.
The debate is getting heated, both inside and outside of the government, over whether to include discussions about redrawing the Northern Limit Line boundaries on the agenda for the second round of the South and North Korean summit meeting early next month.
There is even confusion within the government, because both former and current high-ranking officials from national security-related government offices have repeatedly made remarks such as: “The Northern Limit Line is not a boundary line of our national territory, rather, it is a defense line for security purposes,” and “Using the Northern Limit Line to define our territorial waters is unconstitutional.”
The unification minister’s statement that the Northern Limit Line was not established to be a territorial boundary, but for security purposes, is a mistake caused by his overlooking the inseparability between territory and security.
This becomes clear if you think about the origin of the territorial waters, which were established as an extension of territorial land.
When Cornelius Van Bynkershoek, an 18th century pioneer of modern sea laws and an international legal theorist, first argued that coastal states had a right to claim three nautical miles of adjoining ocean as their territorial waters, it was based on the idea that “the power of a nation goes as far as its weapons’ reach,” and three nautical miles was the distance a cannon could fire from shore. This idea became common practice and was known as the “cannon shot rule.”
Since then, the scope of territorial waters has gradually expanded according to the claims of concerned countries and with the development of weapons technology. In 1994, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) extended the width of territorial waters to 12 nautical miles from shore.
The Northern Limit Line, which is related to the territorial waters between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea, is not a problem that can be considered a separate issue apart from national security.
The idea that using the Northern Limit Line to define territorial waters is unconstitutional, logically weak and stubborn. Article 3 of the Constitution states, “The territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean Peninsula and its adjacent islands.” It symbolically declares the country’s national boundaries.
It is a farfetched error to interpret the provision word for word and claim it is unconstitutional to use the Northern Limit Line to define territorial waters.
Following that opinion, the South-North Basic Agreement could not have been concluded in 1992. North Korea is, according to the National Security Law, “an antinational organization that claims the title of being a government but aims to rebel against or subvert the state.”
The simultaneous entry of South Korea and North Korea into the United Nations in 1991 can also be considered a tacit approval of North Korea as a state, following international law.
Therefore, Article 3 of the Constitution has become even more symbolic, not an actual definition.
Some people point out that if we extend the straight baseline to the adjacent waters of the five islands in the Yellow Sea, it violates the law of the sea because the distance between Yeonpyeong Island and Socheong Island is 47 miles, which is more than 24 miles, the combined width of territorial waters of the two islands based on the 12-mile rule.
However, there are no legal provisions in Unclos or the “Sea and Connecting Waters Agreement” that denote any such restrictions.
In connection with a straight baseline, academic circles present a variety of opinions, from 24 to 48 miles.
Although the Northern Limit Line was established by the United Nations Command right after the conclusion of the armistice in 1953, it has faithfully played the role of a maritime military border between South and North Korea in the Yellow Sea for the past 50 years, and was acknowledged as a valid military border in the Yellow Sea in the 1992 South-North Basic Agreement.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, North Korea has continuously tried to undermine the current system based on the Korean War Armistice Agreement. Among the four pillars of the Armistice Agreement, the Military Armistice Commission and the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission are a deal in name only.
Now that there only remains the Military Demarcation Line on land and the Northern Limit Line at sea, North Korea’s movements to get rid of the Northern Limit Line are becoming more conspicuous.
Remembering the souls who sacrificed their lives heroically while defending the Northern Limit Line a few years ago, we must be on alert against similar surprise attack tactics from North Korea.
Therefore, it is too early to make the Northern Limit Line an item on the agenda for the South and North Korean summit meeting.
As a procedural matter, too, it is an issue that should be debated with other pending military issues, such as getting rid of weapons of mass destruction and phased-in arms reductions. Meetings like the South-North Korean Joint Military committees or other working-level meetings can occur once inter-Korean summit meetings became regular and tension between the two Koreas is actually reduced.
*The writer is a professor of international relations at Myongji University.
by Kim Kyung-soo