Three Chinese crew who were detained after their fishing boat rammed a Korean Coast Guard vessel and sank on Dec. 18, have been freed, apparently due to pressure from Beijing. "After reviewing video footage and radar records, we were able to determine that obstruction of justice was committed, but we decided to drop the charges since the three were not directly involved, and the ship's deceased captain was the instigator," prosecutors said.
Last week, the Chinese government demanded compensation from Korea and punishment of "those responsible" for the sinking of the Chinese trawler, even though it was the trawler that rammed a Korean ship that was trying to stop illegal fishing in Korea's territorial waters. At the time Korea vowed to launch a thorough investigation once the fishermen were handed over by police. But two days later the situation changed. A senior government official said the two countries "agreed on the need to wrap up the matter in an amicable manner as soon as possible." It is not difficult to imagine what caused police and prosecutors to change their minds.
Seoul may well have felt anxious at the prospect of yet further strain in relations with Beijing, its top trading partner, after North Korea's sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island. But the steps the Coast Guard took to stop illegal fishing by the Chinese trawlers were in line with an accord signed by Seoul and Beijing as well as international law in the exercise of its sovereign right. It would have been proper for Korea as a sovereign country to investigate and possibly punish the crew of a boat that tried to prevent it from exercising its legal authority. For the sake of diplomacy, there would have been numerous opportunities to free the crew during the legal process, once a court has ruled or during their jail term. This is why Korea is being criticized for kowtowing to China.
It is unclear whether China made any promises to prevent its fishermen from wielding bamboo spears and metal pipes at Korean Coast Guard officers when caught illegally fishing in Korean waters, as they have done repeatedly. In the latest incident, four coast guards were injured. The government set a bad precedent for any future crackdown on illegal Chinese fishing.
Korea's sovereign right to defend its own territory cannot be compromised under any circumstances or by any country. The country must be ready to make sacrifices and pay the price to defend this right. Only countries armed with firm resolve to defend their sovereign rights can wield any diplomatic clout on the international stage. The government should have been more thoughtful in handling the incident.