Repatriate them quicklyA South Korean squidding boat has been seized by North Korea in the East Sea and taken to North Korean authorities. The boat was reportedly towed by a North Korean patrol ship to Sungjin Port in North Hamgyong Province. Aboard the ship were seven fishermen, including four Koreans and three Chinese. It has attracted our attention as the first incident since the tragic sinking of the Cheonan along the western maritime border.
We also worry that the seizure might introduce new tensions into South-North relations, which have deteriorated to an unprecedented low since the Cheonan sinking. We urge North Korea to send back both the ship and the fishermen as soon as possible. The seizure and detention of a peaceful fishing boat at sea is hardly an appropriate action at any time, but is especially unwelcome now.
If the ship, the Daeseung 55, was seized in North Korea’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the South Korean maritime authority could be held accountable for negligence of its duties to oversee fishermen working along the sea border. But it has been reported that just a day before its seizure, the ship told our authorities that it was fishing below the EEZ. If that’s the case, it’s difficult to rule out a possibility of intentional seizure by North Korea.
Even if the ship crossed into the EEZ, North Korea should repatriate the fishermen as quickly as possible. After all, if the ship had been in waters off the EEZ until a day before it was apprehended, it is very likely to have strayed off course by mistake. In that case, the North should treat the fishermen well, considering the anxiety of their families and relatives.
Since 2000, North Korea has captured five fishing boats, including its seizure last year of the 800 Yeonan, which was sent back to us along with its fishermen after 30 days of detention. In the remaining four incidents as well, North Korea returned the ship and fishermen on the day of seizure or after several days.
However, it would be a problem if the ship was seized in open water. Considering similar cases from the past, that possibility appears slim. But in light of tense relations between South and North Korea, we cannot help but worry about the possibility that the North has abducted the ship on purpose. Under this scenario, the latest incident is likely to become protracted, so we should be well prepared for that possibility.
Since the ship’s captain said that he and the other fishermen had been seized by a North Korean patrol ship, the first thing the government should do is send a letter to North Korea to find out what happened yesterday at sea and urge North Korea to repatriate the fishermen as soon as possible.