A line in the sea

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A line in the sea

Politicians are at it again, spinning our heads with wordplay. The topic this time is the Northern Limit Line, the western de facto maritime border between the two Koreas.

The issue has dominated the presidential campaign since Representative Chung Moon-hun of the ruling Saenuri Party claimed last week that former President Roh Moo-hyun, in a closed-door talk with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during the summit in Pyongyang on Oct. 3, 2007, said that the “headache” of the NLL could be resolved once the two Koreas established a joint fishing zone in the Yellow Sea. He allegedly disavowed the NLL because it was unilaterally drawn up by the Americans after the Korean War.

The essence of the controversy became blurry amid the mudslinging of dueling politicians. But there is another way to get an idea about what was really said between the two leaders, both of whom are deceased.

The two Koreas followed up on the summit’s landmark agreement on creating a special shared peace and economic zone along the west coast with a defense ministerial meeting in November 2007 and high-level military talks in December.

The talks all collapsed due to sharp dispute over the NLL. The South demanded equal access to waters on both sides of the NLL, while the North insisted on opening just the southern side. The following is the gist of what was exchanged during the military talks, according to testimony by Lee Sang-chul, deputy director general for arms control at the Ministry of National Defense, who was at the talks.

Kim Il-chol, chief of North Korea’s People’s Armed Forces, accused South Korea of breaking the agreement reached between two heads of state by adhering to the “illegitimate” NLL. Then South Korean Minister of Defense Kim Jang-soo said both sides should discuss the issue by first recognizing the reality that the NLL has been serving as a de facto maritime border between South and North Korea since the end of the Korean War.

After his remarks, Kim Yong-chul, chief Pyongyang delegate to the high-level military talks, disclosed that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il proposed creating a joint fishing zone with the two Koreas from the maritime border line.

South Korean President Roh said that the dispute over the sea border won’t be resolved unless the two Koreas recognize that the NLL was not drawn up on the agreement of the two immediate parties, agreeing to the idea of initiating cooperation without adhering to the sea line.

Returning from the summit talks in October, Roh told political party heads that the NLL is like a line drawn randomly by children and should not be seen as a legitimate territorial border. In November, he said an inter-Korean agreement to change the NLL would not violate the country’s Constitution, which defines all the land across the Korean Peninsula as Korean territory. He, however, added that he did not fiddle with the NLL during the summit talks.

To sum it all up, the late president Roh is certain to have had complaints about the current NLL arrangement. His security, unification, and diplomatic ministers and aides Lee Jae-joung, Jeong Se-hyun, Lee Jong-seok and Kim Man-bok made similar comments. If North Korea has not flatly lied, the NLL issue must have been discussed during the summit talks.

But at the end of the day, Roh defended the NLL. Otherwise, he would not have bestowed authority to then Minister of Defense Kim Jang-soo to discuss and agree on specifics in military-level talks. The late president might have had a bigger idea of creating a cross-border fishing zone, while North Korea was merely greedy about the southern seas.

Whether the former president was wrong or erred, the incoming president may have to think deeply about the contentious sea border that has been the setting for deadly military skirmishes since the 1970s. Park Geun-hye, candidate of the ruling conservative Saenuri Party, said that she could revisit the idea of creating a shared peace zone along the west coast if North Korea respects the current maritime border. But her words ring hollow because Pyongyang is hardly able to retract decades of resistance and complaints about the existing sea border arrangement.

Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic United Party said he will defend the NLL. But the former chief presidential secretary to Roh made a critical comment against then Minister of Defense Kim, saying the latter had been too rigid in the defense ministerial talks. Is he suggesting Kim should have been as so flexible as to surrender our seas?

Does he sympathize with Roh’s controversial comment that the country could yield some of its sovereignty for the sake of unity?

Independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo is also allegedly steadfast on the NLL. But his unification adviser Kim Yeon-chul has advocated Roh’s vision, saying a joint fishing zone would mean that South Korean fishermen can fish in the waters of the North, which would widen, not restrict, our territory.

I am curious to know the real thoughts of the candidates on this issue.

* The author is deputy editor of political and international news of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Ko Jung-ae
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