[Viewpoint] Can the Yellow Sea see peace?

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[Viewpoint] Can the Yellow Sea see peace?

Former President Roh Moo-hyun signed an eight-point declaration after a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang on Oct. 4, 2007. The agreement on enhancing inter-Korean relations and peace and prosperity proposed many detailed joint-ventures. The two Koreas agreed to create a special peace zone around Haeju in North Korea and nearby areas as well as a joint fishing area, a special economic zone, access to the Haeju waterway by commercial ships and joint development of the estuary of the Han River.

The deal for such economic cooperation boosted expectations by local industries of access to North Korean resources. It would also have resolved skirmishes in the disputed waters of the Northern Limit Line (NLL). According to a survey of 378 economists and specialists by the Korea Development Institute, 73 percent responded positively to the economic agreements in the Oct. 4 declaration. Only 10.8 percent were doubtful. They were most enthusiastic about the establishment of a peace zone around the western coast that would not only ease inter-Korean tensions but also boost two-way trade.

But many still questioned whether the waters that saw deadly military skirmishes in 1999 and 2002 could ever serve peaceful commercial purpose. Then Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung recalled that Kim Jong-il appeared equally unconvinced about the viability of the projects, asking his South Korean counterpart several times if they were really possible. South Korea’s proposal to create a special economic zone in Haeju and the nearby western coast crossing the NLL was that radical. It also underscored President Roh’s single-minded leadership style.

But the project was too ambitious for the Roh administration to handle with just a few months left in its tenure. Roh may have been too self-assured that his promises would be honored by his successor. One official who participated in concocting the proposals explained that Roh was a lawyer and genuinely believed that the NLL, which has no legal binding force, should not serve as a stumbling block to progress even as his aides suggested otherwise.

But the disputed maritime demarcation line proved to be too big an obstacle to push ahead with the projects. A defense ministerial meeting held in November to discuss a military pact to create joint fishing waters ended in failure. The South Korean defense minister proposed that joint fishing waters be created of equal sizes in the South and North starting from the NLL.

But the North wanted the southern waters, exposing its ambition to exploit the southern territory. The failed talks also dashed hopes for a special economic zone on the western coast in the North. The project was forgotten after the inauguration of the hard-line conservative government led by President Lee Myung-bak.

North Korea since has committed military provocations in the West Sea, sinking a South Korean naval ship and shelling an inhabited island. The South Korean military reinforced its arms on the western frontline, setting up a defense headquarters with an additional 1,100 troops with a plan to turn the entire area into a fortress by 2015 at a cost of 390 billion won ($333 million). North Korea, in response, stationed 3,000 men as well as 60 to 70 amphibious craft along the west coast. The Yellow Sea, which could have been a symbolic venue for peace, was made a conflict zone.

The presidential hopeful from the ruling Saenuri Party, Park Geun-hye, said in a speech in February that the Oct. 4 inter-Korean deal is a mutual promise the two Koreas should uphold. Then the spokesman for the party’s emergency council, Hwang Young-cheul, added that the 14 trillion won estimated cost of the deal would be worthwhile if both sides trusted one another and guaranteed their parts of the deal. If Park wins the presidential race, the shelved project could be revived. It will mostly likely be revisited if the main opposition Democratic United Party, led by Roh loyalists, comes to power.

Pyongyang, which has been reminding Seoul of the deal every time it has the chance, will likely be more than obliging. The creation of a special economic zone along the west coast could emerge as the biggest issue next year. The NLL remains a stumbling block. But unlike 2007, there will be enough time to talk over the matter for whomever becomes the next president. The day may come when we may see fishermen from the North and South peacefully fish in the once-tense waters.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kang Young-jin
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