[In depth interview]Beefing up Korea’s coastal control

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[In depth interview]Beefing up Korea’s coastal control

On Oct. 10, Poseidon, a special mobile coast guard unit, was formed in Incheon. Consisting of 60 well-trained coast guard officers, including former members of the Underwater Demolition Team, the new special unit will be in charge of guarding the peninsula’s west coast against Chinese fishing boats operating illegally in Korean territorial waters.

By any measure, this has not been a great year for the Korea Coast Guard. On Sept. 25, a Korea Coast Guard officer was killed and six others were injured while attempting to inspect a Chinese boat fishing illegally in Korean waters. It was later revealed that on Sept. 23, six more officers were beaten and held hostage by a Chinese crew in waters near Mokpo, South Jeolla.

Kang Hee-rak, chief of the Korea Coast Guard, acknowledged this was an embarrassing series of events for the coastal authorities.

“I take full responsibility for this disgrace and humiliation,” Kang said in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo. “By launching the new special unit, we’re determined to prevent similar incidents from ever happening again.”

Kang, 56, said that while the Korean officers “won’t be pointing guns at unarmed Chinese civilians,” he told Chinese officials in no uncertain terms that “If Chinese fishermen turn belligerent, then we will fire.”

The veteran police officer, who has been in the forces since 1991, also worried that Chinese dragnet fishing boats will pop up this week in Korean waters and that could elevate tension between Korean authorities and Chinese fishermen.

Q.Why would the Chinese risk arrest and come here to fish illegally?

A.It’s becoming increasingly difficult to fish off the Chinese coasts. There are too many fishermen and rapid industrialization has polluted the waters to a point where many fish are being endangered. This year alone, we seized 194 illegal Chinese vessels, and 2,820 since a fisheries agreement took effect in 2001. And some three dozen Coast Guard officers have been injured.

Is the Korea Coast Guard too lax in its response?

We operate radars and jet patrols 24 hours a day. And whenever we detect suspicious boats, we notify the vessel on standby. That vessel then sails out for an inspection and once we establish that the boats in question are illegal, we arrest the crew. It may be difficult to catch a fishing boat on the run, so we also send out two smaller, high-speed inflatable boats. The late Park Gyeong-jo [who was slain in the Sept. 23 attack] was trying to board the Chinese ship from one of the inflatable boats.

How strong is resistance from the Chinese fishermen?

Some of them are armed with axes, steel pipes and poles. They are getting increasingly violent and organized. We levy fines of between 30 million and 50 million won [$24, 840?$41,400] per boat, depending on the size, on illegal fishing boats, and it’s an enormous amount of money for the Chinese.

It’s really life or death for them and that makes their resistance that much stiffer. Sometimes, Chinese gangsters accompany the fishermen to wreak havoc on our Coast Guard officers.

Isn’t it necessary to improve our equipment to fight off such resistance?

Our high-speed inflatable boats are equipped with high-pressure water cannon. Salty sea water can be quite effective in suppressing violent resistance.

In dangerous situations, the coast guard should consider using firearms, shouldn’t they?

There have been instances where the fishermen knew Korean coast guard officers wouldn’t fire shots and they all but dared us to shoot. A few days ago, we did fire some warning shots.

If the situation is life-threatening or calls for self-defense, then we can absolutely use firearms. In the past, our officers didn’t carry guns because they didn’t want to risk losing them. But I’ve ordered the leaders of each team to be armed.

Is the coast guard wary of causing diplomatic headaches?

Xing Hai-ming, China’s deputy ambassador to Korea, paid a visit and I told him we would definitely use guns if anyone, even civilians, get violent toward us. He said he was sorry about the recent turn of events but China has had difficulties in educating and keeping tabs on its fishermen.

What’s the situation around Dokdo these days?

About once every three days, a patrol ship from the Japanese Coast Guard shows up. It often gets to within 24 to 28 kilometers (14.9 to 17.4 miles) of Dokdo. Our patrol vessels stay inside the 12-nautical-mile limit of our territorial waters and if the Japanese boats get close, we send out an extra vessel.

Has any civilian Japanese ship, such as one from a right-wing organization, ever appeared near Dokdo?

It hasn’t happened yet. When a Japanese ship approaches, our radar catches it first and the vessel on standby detects it, too. Our first step is to stop the ship in question to inspect it and then decide whether to seize it.

How would Korea stand up against Japan in a clash?

To be honest, we’d be no match against Japan. Their patrol ship has a 40-millimeter automatic cannon but ours has only a 20-millimeter Vulcan cannon. Their range is 7,000 meters and ours is only 2,000 meters. When they attack from afar, we’d be no match for them. We will equip new vessels with 40-millimeter automatic cannons, too.

Are we really that badly overmatched?

We just haven’t invested enough. We have only one turbo jet aircraft. We will bring in another one this year and four more next year. There are 14 helicopters today.

We have 276 vessels at present and 24 of them are large vessels of more than 1,000 tons in weight. Japan has 470 such vessels and China, 1,200. We’d like to get our large vessels up to 33 by 2012.

What does a typical coast guard do that police on the ground don’t?

We obviously battle crimes on the sea. But we also deal with oil leaks and other incidents that may contaminate the sea. The coast guard also fights smugglers in the waters. To put it simply, we deal with everything that’s going on in the sea.

By Goh Dae-hun JoongAng Ilbo [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]
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