Seoul downplays row with China over fishing boat

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Seoul downplays row with China over fishing boat

Seoul has ample evidence that can prove its innocence in the capsizing of a Chinese fishing boat off its west coast last Saturday and is willing to open an investigation into the case with China, according to high-ranking officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade yesterday.

A diplomatic row over the incident will do harm to both countries, the officials said. The remarks came a day after China’s Foreign Ministry demanded from Korea compensation for the incident and punishment for those responsible.

According to the National Maritime Police Agency, the Korea Coast Guard, the 63-ton Chinese boat Liaoyingyu 35403 capsized and sank 72 miles off Gunsan, North Jeolla, on Saturday, after ramming into a 3,000-ton Korean Coast Guard patrol ship. One of the 10 sailors on board the Chinese vessel died, and another remains missing. Five of the other eight sailors were rescued by Chinese fishing boats, and the other three were rescued by the Coast Guard and are under investigation.

Several officers of the Korea Coast Guard were injured by Chinese sailors while blocking their efforts to board another Chinese boat.

“We express condolences for the loss of life,” said a ministry official yesterday while briefing reporters.

But, he said, video of the incident and photographs of radar screen imagery at the time will show the incident was provoked by the Chinese boat as the Coast Guard tried to stop illegal activities in its territory. Seoul also acquired statements from Chinese sailors under investigation that questioned the decision of the captain of the Chinese boat to ram the Korean vessel.

He said the Coast Guard summoned representatives of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul on Monday and showed them the evidence.

“Regarding our investigation,” the official said, “if China raises objections, we are willing to let the Chinese witness the investigation process.”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told the press on Tuesday that Korea must “bring the perpetrators to justice, make compensation for the loss of our property and take concrete efforts to prevent such instances from reoccurring.”

Analysts worry that the incident, and China’s reaction, could develop into a territorial dispute similar to one that arose between China and Japan after a similar collision near the disputed Senkaku Islands in September.

“The Senkaku incident already had a sovereignty conflict behind it,” another Korean Foreign Ministry official said. “But this is an issue of whether the fishing boat was involved in illegal activities or not, and whether our enforcement was excessive. It shouldn’t be expanded.”

Some analysts also expressed concern that Beijing might be trying to punish Seoul for complaining about China’s role in not reining in North Korean attacks such as the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea.

“It is not desirable for either us or China to make a big diplomatic issue out of this,” the official said.

The official said it was a simple accident and if there had been a misunderstanding, it can be resolved quickly through evidence held by Seoul.

According to officials, about 15 Chinese vessels including the Liaoyingyu 35403 were fishing 15 nautical miles (17.2 miles) within South Korea’s exclusive economic zone Saturday afternoon and fled when they saw the Korea Coast Guard patrol ship.

The South Korea-China fishery agreement, which took effect on June 30, 2001, allows fishermen of both countries to fish in each other’s EEZ, but only when they have licenses from the other country.

The official said Korea, under international maritime law, can order a foreign vessel to halt for inspection when the boat is suspected of fishing illegally within its EEZ, which the patrol ship did to the Liaoyingyu 35432, another boat, which fled from the Coast Guard for as much as 0.8 nautical miles within Korea’s EEZ. The Chinese boats continued to flee and the Coast Guard patrol declared a “hot pursuit,” a right under international maritime law. The patrol caught up with the Liaoyingyu 35432 when they reached a joint fishing area, designated under the South Korea-China fishery agreement, and sent a speedboat carrying guards to the Chinese boat. The Korean guards were attacked by Chinese sailors while trying to board. During the scuffle, another Chinese boat, the Liaoyingyu 35403, rammed the patrol ship.

By Moon Gwang-lip []
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