Fishing in troubled watersWhat was North Korea thinking when watching the South’s debate unfold regarding President Roh Moo-hyun’s alleged denial of the Northern Limit Line in 2007 on the eve of the upcoming presidential election? Members of the regime probably had wide smiles stretched across their faces. The North staged a series of provocations in the Yellow Sea to deny the NLL, but they always backfired as the South united to defend the maritime border. And yet, this time there was no direct provocation by the North, but the South is in the midst of a serious confrontation over the issue. It appeared to be a great opportunity for the North to pick up an unexpected gain.
The North’s role was not small in fueling the controversy. Last month, North Korean fishing boats crossed the de facto maritime border six times and returned only after the South’s Navy broadcast warnings five times. On the sixth time, the boat refused to respond to the verbal warning, leading the South to fire warning shots. Although speculation was high that the series of NLL violations was part of the North’s plans for an armed provocation in the Yellow Sea, no such incident has taken place.
Eight days after the South fired the warning shot, the North’s National Defense Commission issued a press statement to condemn the South’s Navy. The North argued that the issues of creating a joint fishing zone and the peace zone in the Yellow Sea, stipulated in the Oct. 4, 2007 declaration between the two Koreas, were measures agreed upon between the two Koreas based on the precondition that the NLL was illegitimate. The North also criticized the presidential candidate of the Saenuri Party, Park Geun-hye, for her attempt to discuss the joint fishing zone with respect to the NLL. “That is an expression of her ignorance on how the inter-Korean agreement was made and what its contents were,” the North said. At the time, the statement didn’t catch much attention, but it served as a critical point to amplify the controversy in the South.
Moon Jae-in, the presidential candidate of the Democratic United Party, soon made a controversial remark on Oct. 4 at the commemoration event of the Oct. 4, 2007 declaration. He said that then-Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo showed a rigid attitude on the NLL at the inter-Korean defense ministerial talks which followed the 2007 inter-Korean summit. Moon said it is “regretful” that Kim’s attitude prompted the talks to break down. Moon’s remarks sparked a debate at the National Assembly inspection on the Ministry of National Defense on the next day, but it also passed by the public as a minor event.
The controversy over the NLL, then, exploded when Representative Chung Moon-hun of the Saenuri Party made a bombshell revelation on Oct. 8 during the legislature’s review of the Unification Ministry. Chung said then-President Roh told his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il during the 2007 summit that he would disavow the NLL. The Saenuri Party, then, attacked Moon fiercely, citing the Sept. 29 statement issued by the North’s National Defense Commission. The conservative ruling party said the North was referring to Roh’s remark to make its argument.
President Lee Myung-bak made an unprecedented visit to Yeonpyeong Island on Oct. 18 and made clear the South’s intention to defend the NLL. The North, once again, condemned the move by holding the National Defense Commission’s press conference. “Until the day of unification, only the maritime military demarcation line that we drew will exist in the Yellow Sea, not the NLL,” the North declared. It also claimed that the conservatives are creating a new security conspiracy with the NLL controversy.
On the same day, the Institute for Disarmament and Peace of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry also issued a statement and argued that the NLL is not supported by any international law and it is a ghost line that runs against the Korean Armistice Agreement. It appears that the North actually enjoys the controversy surrounding the NLL in the South. It is issuing statements one after another to freely argue that the NLL is illegitimate.
Recently, a new topic was added to the controversy. Saenuri Representative Chung Mong-joon compared the legal characteristics of the NLL with Dokdo on Oct. 17 and argued that the NLL serves as the territorial border. Then, opposition lawmakers argued that the NLL is not a constitutional territorial border.
At the National Assembly, lawmakers asked incumbent Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik whether they think of the NLL as a constitutional border. Kim answered on Oct. 19 that the NLL has been established as the territorial border. On Oct. 24, Yu also said it is hard to say that the NLL is a territorial border due to the peculiar nature of the inter-Korean relationship, but it is a de facto inter-Korean border that serves the function as the territorial boundary. The controversy surrounding the NLL is expected to continue. It is the first time that the Korean society is engaged in such a lengthy debate on the issue. The new administration will inevitably have a tough fight with the North next year over the NLL.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kang Young-jin