The government on Monday announced that it will try to from a high-level negotiating group with Beijing to curb illegal fishing in Korean waters by Chinese fishermen. It also announced measures to boost the number of 1,000-ton-plus patrol ships from the current 18 to 27. The National Assembly is to authorize the W108.4 billion (US$1=W1,155) budget for the project starting next year and allocate a total of W932.4 billion by 2015.
The government will operate nine big patrol ships each in the West and South Sea on three shifts a day, and the 18 inflatable speedboats currently in use by the Coast Guard will be upgraded from the current 6.5 m versions to 10 m ones over the next three years. The measures show that the government has belatedly realized how serious illegal fishing in Korean waters is.
At present, only two out of the eight Coast Guard commandos who board the speedboats to approach Chinese trawlers carry weapons, but in future all of them will be armed. Also, guidelines on the use of firearms will be simplified so that Coast Guard commandos can shoot if they feel their lives are threatened or it is otherwise impossible to carry out their duties.
Following the killing of a Coast Guard commando by a Chinese fisherman in September 2008, the government authorized maritime police to use tougher steps to crack down on illegal fishing. But the steps proved ineffective, and earlier this month another commando was stabbed to death by a Chinese fisherman. The death essentially resulted from the government's failure to use its diplomatic skills to persuade China to prevent illegal fishing.
Strategic talks on Tuesday between the vice foreign ministers of the two countries will be the first bilateral contact since the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The talks are therefore expected to focus on diplomatic and security issues, and it is likely that the issue of illegal fishing will once again be sidelined.
But the issue is important. The government must warn Beijing that China's image in Korea will be irreparably damaged if the problem is left unaddressed. Unless there is concrete progress in creating the high-level consultative group before the leaders of the two countries sit down for a summit next month, public opinion here could become extremely heated and demands will only grow to deal with illegal Chinese fishermen with the utmost severity.