N.Korea Must Free S.Korean Fishermen Now

      July 31, 2009 12:14

      A South Korean fishing boat carrying four crew strayed across the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the East Sea on Thursday morning. The 29-ton vessel, called "800 Yeonan," was towed by a North Korean naval patrol boat to the port of Jangjon. In a message through an inter-Korean communication channel, South Korea immediately demanded the swift return of the fishermen and the vessel. North Korea responded later in the day saying the fishermen were "being investigated by relevant authorities." 

      In the 56 years since the ceasefire, the maritime borders of the two sides have been separated by the NLL and a fishing restriction line. But unlike those on land, maritime borders do not have signs. That has led to numerous instances where navigational error or equipment malfunctions have caused vessels to stray across the line. In recent years, the two Koreas quickly sent back fishermen from each side after going through a simple examination.

      More recently, North Korean fishing boats crossed over the NLL on July 5 and on June 30 amid thick fog, but the South notified the North and had its naval patrol boats take them back. On Feb. 8, 2008, 22 North Koreans drifted into waters off Yeonpyeong Island aboard inflatable boats, but they were all sent back via Panmunjom that same day after a routine examination.

      On June 26, 2005, South Korean patrol boats discovered a North Korean fishing boat that had strayed across the NLL east of Baeknyeong Island and gave the fishermen a compass so they could find their way back. In 2004, South Korea returned North Korean fishing boats and passengers on five different occasions after they crossed over the NLL in the West and East seas.

      North Korea also returned South Korean fishermen and vessels after they crossed over the NLL. On Aug. 14, 2005, a South Korean squid-fishing vessel accidentally strayed 156 miles into the NLL, encroaching into North Korea's exclusive economic zone. North Korean soldiers boarded the vessel to investigate the crew and even apologized for breaking the boat's windows by firing warning shots and sent the six crew and ship back to the South. In April 2006, a South Korean fisherman crossed over into the North Korean side of the NLL, but was returned after five days.

      The captain of the Yeonan reportedly contacted South Korean authorities in Sokcho just before being towed to North Korea and said, "We ran into a North Korean patrol boat while trying to fix a broken GPS. We are being investigated." Judging from the comments, the fishermen appear to have accidentally strayed across the NLL. North Korea must quickly return the crew members and the vessel as has been the practice in recent years.

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