Coast Guard commandos Lee Cheong-ho and Lee Nak-hoon were stabbed by a Chinese fisherman with a piece of broken glass on Monday morning while they were trying to arrest him for fishing illegally inside Korea's Exclusive Economic Zone. Lee Cheong-ho died and Lee Nak-hoon was wounded. It was the second time in three years that a Korean national was killed while trying to stop illegal fishing by Chinese fishermen. The last time was in September of 2008, when maritime police officer Park Kyung-jo died after he was hit with a shovel wielded by a Chinese fisherman and fell into the ocean.
The violence of Chinese fishermen can no longer be swept under the carpet. Unless Korea deals with it firmly, such acts will only increase. Strong reprisals are the best deterrent. The latest murder occurred just 10 days after the Foreign Ministry's head of Northeast Asian Affairs, Cho Se-young, visited Beijing to protest against illegal fishing on the West Sea. First Vice Foreign Minister Park Suk-hwan called in China's ambassador to Seoul Zhang Xinsen to lodge an official protest, but the Chinese envoy merely repeated Beijing's previous promise to "increase awareness and education" of fishermen. Yet every day, hundreds or even thousands of Chinese fishing boats encroach into Korea's EEZ because Beijing continues to turn a blind eye. Seoul and Beijing need to hold new talks so that China will at least be required to manage the numbers, but the first thing Korea needs to do is to take punitive action.
Chinese fishermen are getting ever more brazen. They are armed with sharpened bamboo sticks, axes, sickles and metal pipes, and fix sharp spears or barbed wire on their vessels to keep Korean maritime police from boarding them. Korean maritime police are armed with guns, electric shock batons, rubber bullets and batons, but they only fired a live round once, in March this year. They are risking their lives for the sake of the government's softly-softly approach that is aimed at avoiding a diplomatic clash with Beijing at all costs.
Also, only 68 out of the 291 Coast Guard boats weigh the 200 tons or more and are big enough to crack down on Chinese trawlers. And running the ships on triple shifts whittled down the number to 20 to protect the entire waters of the country against illegal Chinese fishing boats. Korea needs an emergency budget to bolster the number of patrol ships and allow maritime police to act more decisively.