Remember officer Lee’s death?
On the early morning of Dec. 12, 2011, Assistant Inspector Lee Cheong-ho of the Incheon Coast Guard spotted two Chinese vessels fishing illegally in Korea’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) while monitoring the waters south of Socheong Island in the West Sea.
Lee got on a speedboat to catch up with the ships and was able to board one of them. He and seven other officers gained control of the crew, but the 45-year-old captain, Cheng Dawei, locked the steering house and attempted to run. As officer Lee Nak-hoon entered through the emergency door, Cheng stabbed him in the stomach. Assistant Inspector Lee lit a flare and entered the steering house, and Cheng stabbed him in the side.
Lee was taken to the hospital, but he did not survive.
While Cheng was apprehended, he denied all allegations. Only on the fifth day of confinement did he admit to his crime. He said he lied because he was afraid he would be executed if he confessed. The Chinese foreign ministry expressed “regrets” but did not formally apologize.
On April 19, 2012, the Incheon District Court sentenced Cheng to 30 years in prison. The sentence was lower than the prosecutor’s demand for the death penalty. After the ruling, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin said the sentence was unacceptable. He argued that Korea and China hadn’t finalized the EEZ boundary in the West Sea, and that the ruling was based on the EEZ as defined unilaterally by Korea.
On Oct. 10, 2014, a Chinese fisherman was killed during a Coast Guard crackdown on illegal fishing in the Korean EEZ near Wangdeung Island, North Jeolla. The Chinese foreign ministry criticized Korea for “violent law enforcement.” This time, Beijing hasn’t even acknowledged the fact that the Chinese fishing vessel violated the EEZ and engaged in illegal fishing.
“They are not even afraid of the rubber bullets because they wear thick clothes. When we throw a flare, they would kick it away instead of running. When we aim to scare them, some sailors open up their chest and dare us to shoot,” said an officer from the North Jeolla Coast Guard.
Officer Hong of the Incheon Coast Guard said that the use of firearms is often inevitable when raiding illegal fishing operations. In fact, the Korean authorities’ response to China’s illegal fishing is far less strict than that of Russia, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and North Korea. When a Chinese cargo ship seized in 2009 over smuggling allegations sailed away, Russia mobilized a warship and sank the vessel. In 2001, the Vietnamese navy shot machine guns at a Chinese boat that was fishing illegally and captured it.
The Korean Coast Guard only allows officers to carry firearms, a decision that followed the death of Lt. Park Gyeong-jo, who was hit with a blunt weapon and died during a crackdown in 2008.
Even when a boat is captured for illegal fishing, Korean authorities let the boat go, along with all the fish it caught, for a deposit of up to 200 million won ($188,520). It is just too generous compared to Brazil and Indonesia, which demand up to 31.8 billion won and 2.6 billion won, respectively.
Currently, four bills related to the EEZ are pending in the National Assembly. A revision on the Coast Guard Act that allows the use of weapons has also been proposed. They are all related to illegal fishing by Chinese boats. Considering China’s attitude of protesting even fair law enforcement, these bills must be processed as soon as possible to minimize any room for conflict. However, most have been pushed to the back burner now and haven’t even been discussed on parliamentary committees.
On Wednesday, I spoke with Cpl. Nam Hyung-kwon, who was on the scene when Lee Cheong-ho was killed. As we spoke on the phone, he was guarding the East Sea on a patrol boat.
“The Coast Guard officers had guns that day but didn’t use them. Aim is not very accurate on a shaky boat, so we only use them as a last line of defense when our lives are threatened. Lee followed the manual, but the steering house was so dark that he couldn’t see the Chinese captain holding a weapon. When Chinese sailors use weapons, we feel like it is more of a battle than a crackdown,” he said.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 16, page 38
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Cheong Chul-gun