Solving the fishing puzzle

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Solving the fishing puzzle

The word pasi in Korean literally means a market among the waves.

Fishing boats go to sea when the waters are filled with fish. The shores are full of life as sailors travel from one bar to another. Merchants from all around the country spend time on piers selecting fish and emptying their wallets before they travel back to their shops. A fishing town earns a year’s worth of income during the fishing season.

The open-air markets along the islands of Yeonpyeongdo, Heuksando and Wido in the Yellow Sea are the most famous. Among them, Yeonpyeong Island has the longest history. Archives recording the period under the rule of King Sejong describe how fishing activities had been vibrant during the spring and summer — and how much taxes they contributed to the state. Traditional fish markets that endured many eras are mostly gone, replaced by the modern auctioning industry and market.

The antiquated word pasi has had frequent mentions in the media, but without any trace of its earlier romantic connotations.

The term has been tweaked to meet today’s circumstances. It refers to a legitimate fish trading venue for Chinese fishermen along the inter-Korean maritime border. This is considered one way to stop their piracy and stealing of fishing resources in Korean waters. It was an idea floated out of frustration and desperation after fighting off illegal trawlers become daily occurrences for the Coast Guard in the Yellow Sea.

The idea sounds good, but it is not so realistic. Chinese boats plying the sea along Yeonpyeong Island has as long a history. A map from the days of King Yeongjo recorded how the sea off Jangsan at Hwanghae in North Korea was so rich with blowfish and sea cucumbers that Chinese fishermen often invaded to scoop them up and caused harm to the local people. They hid until authorities went away and went back to netting the fish again, the record says.

Because fishing on the Korean side of the Yellow Sea was common for Chinese fishermen, they were instrumental in secretly transporting Western missionaries to Korea. The fishing fleet eventually became too big for the Joseon government handle. One record says Chinese vessels came in a fleet of hundreds and thousands to command the center of the sea. The fishermen were also armed to fight Joseon soldiers. The Joseon court repeatedly asked Chinese authorities to contain them but received no relief.

What Korean fishermen experience today has been happening for 250 years or even longer. We need to be more cool-headed about the situation. Chinese fishermen who use Korean waters as their own now capitalize on inter-Korean tensions to help themselves to underwater resources along the maritime border where both Koreas avoid venturing in fear of stoking unnecessary skirmishes. Experts have long suggested a joint Korean fishing zone as a kind of long-term solution, and the Seoul government pursued the idea for some time. But that too is a far-fetched idea given the enduring conflict between the two Koreas.

North Korea would hardly accept the South’s proposal. When southern Coast Guards seized a Chinese vessel fishing at the tip of the Han River, North Korea accused the South of a military provocation.

The North Korean front-line naval force is said to be earning nearly $100 million a year from Chinese fishermen in return for allowing them to enter their seas. The trade in fishing rights is designed to undermine the Northern Limit Line that Pyongyang does not respect as an international border. It says it was unilaterally drawn up and is arbitrary.

Joint fishing in the waters where patrol ships of both Koreas pass can raise safety concerns for local authorities. We cannot risk North Korean naval forces coming to our side as near as Incheon. We also cannot buy fish for North Korea at a time when international sanctions against the country for testing a nuclear device and long-range missiles are in force.

There is only one way. It may sound textbook-like, but there is no other option. The two Koreas must restore ties and build trust in one another. Then they would be free to discuss running a joint fish market or even a fishing zone.

Sanctions cannot be lifted immediately, but at least we should leave some doors open. We must press North Korea to come to the negotiating table and persuade the United States and China to use their clout to help the effort. There is no other solution than co-survival — not only to fend off Chinese fishing vessels but also to address the bigger challenges of low growth and a low birthrate. We must create a future with North Korea in it as our partner.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 22, Page 28

*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Hoon-beom
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