[Viewpoint] China should discipline its fishermen

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[Viewpoint] China should discipline its fishermen

Hundreds of Chinese fishing boats engage in illegal fishing deep in Korea’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), often violently resisting inspections from our Coast Guard. Nevertheless, the Chinese government has connived with them to allow them to fish illegally.

Ultimately, Lee Cheong-ho, a member of the Coast Guard, was stabbed to death, and another was injured last week by the captain of an illegal Chinese fishing boat. In the past three years, two Coast Guard members have lost their lives in such seizures, and over 20 others have been injured by deadly weapons, such as bamboo sticks, fish forks, axes, shovels and steel pipes, wielded by Chinese fishermen. The Chinese government should prevent recurrence of such unfortunate incidents by ensuring that Chinese fishermen observe international norms and respect the interests of neighboring countries.

Because of the murder of the Coast Guard sailor, relations between Korea and China have cooled fast. Angry Koreans have staged protests every day in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, and President Lee Myung-bak is reconsidering his planned visit to Beijing in January. Criticism against China has also spread to the international community through the Internet. One American posted on his Twitter account that China should impose a heavy penalty for its fishermen’s violence and apologize to Korea. An online commenter said the incident showed us the bully that will succeed the United States. Another American Twitter user insisted that the incident showed reason why the United States should continue to station troops in Korea, though U.S. troops stationed elsewhere in the world should be withdrawn.

China has brought upon such criticism by itself. The country has not only allowed its fishing boats to intrude into a neighboring country’s EEZ and engage in illegal fishing, but it has also turned on Korea even after one of its own killed a Korean Coast Guard member. Liu Weimin, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, warned Seoul to treat the arrested men judiciously. “South Korea is obligated to fully protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese fishermen and to provide them with due humanitarian treatment,” he said. The country, however, should be aware that the international community does not look at China in a favorable light when it seeks greater global hegemony.

The reason behind the increase in illegal fishing boats is due to the reality that the haul of fish along the Chinese coast has decreased sharply, although domestic consumption has increased drastically. According to China’s Fishery Administration, the per capita consumption of marine products increased three times in less than two decades, from 10.9 kilograms (24 pounds) in 1990 to 37 kilograms in 2008. And yet, fishery resources along the Chinese coast have almost dried up because of dragnet fishing and pollution from heavy chemical industries situated along the coast. Therefore, Chinese fishing boats intrude into Korea’s EEZ by the thousands and engage in illegal fishing. If they pay fishing fees, however, they can engage in legal fishing in Korea’s EEZ. Beijing should discipline its fishermen so they engage in legal fishing by paying fishing fees to the Korean government as stipulated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Korean government, for its part, was slow to react. According to Korea Coast Guard, a total of 439 Chinese fishing boats have been captured this year, a 46 percent increase over last year, and the number of Chinese boats engaging in illegal fishing inside Korea’s EEZ is estimated to be around 10,000. In comparison, Korea Coast Guard has only 29 patrol boats that are big enough for offshore patrol duties. It now plans to strengthen its force by purchasing four additional big boats, 26 small- and medium-sized boats and three aircraft. The National Assembly should facilitate the plan by passing the budget for it as soon as possible.

In addition, the quality of protective gear for Coast Guard members should be improved, and the maritime police officers should be permitted to use weapons, if necessary, when they approach Chinese boats for inspection. If boats suspected of illegal fishing resist demands for inspection, or fishermen resist law enforcement by wielding weapons, Coast Guard members should overwhelm them by using all available weapons. It was appropriate, therefore, that the commissioner of Korea Coast Guard decided to simplify the manual on the use of weapons and not to hold Coast Guard members responsible for using weapons.

At this moment, thousands of Chinese boats are engaging in illegal fishing inside Korea’s EEZ. Conflicts between the Coast Guard and Chinese fishermen are unavoidable. If Coast Guard members start to use weapons, there will be casualties on the Chinese side. If China wants to normalize relations with Korea and prevent the occurrence of such unfortunate incidents, it should abandon its policy of seeking global hegemony. Instead, it should pursue the good-neighbor policy of taking disciplinary action against its fishermen who violate international norms. On the other hand, the Korean government should take preventive measures, such as augmenting patrol boats, on one hand, and increasing the fines on illegal fishing, on the other, so that those who engage in illegal fishing cannot get any profit from their illegal haul.

*The writer is a visiting professor of communications at Sejong University.

By Park Sung-soo
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