N. Korea sells China fishing rights to S. Korean waters, just in time for Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul.

North Korea, in a demonstration of its unique gift for sowing mischief, has just added South Korea to the long list of Asian nations involved in maritime disputes with China. According to Yonhap, Pyongyang has just sold the fishing rights to “its” littoral waters in the Yellow Sea to China. That’s a problem for Seoul because Pyongyang defines “its” to include waters south of the Northern Limit Line, the disputed maritime extension of the western side of the Korean DMZ.

“Part of our waters in the Yellow Sea was included in the area that the North is allowing Chinese vessels to fish in,” said a military officer in Seoul, requesting anonymity. “Upon learning this, we’ve notified China of such a fact and asked them to be careful not to cross the northern limit line (NLL) into the South,” he added. [Yonhap]

North Korea has been making similar deals with China in recent years, but this is the first year North Korea has had the brass to sell China fishing rights in waters South Korea claims. More importantly, it is also the first year China has had the brass to buy them.

It’s not clear from the reports when North Korea and China signed the deal, or why it has only become public now, just before Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul.

Although South Korea is making it clear that Chinese ships aren’t welcome on its side of the NLL, its main instrument for enforcing its will there is … the South Korean Coast Guard, which President Park recently promised to abolish in retribution for its poor response to the Sewol Ferry disaster.

The move is a shrewd one on North Korea’s part. Not only does it get cash from China to pay for more cell phone trackers, barbed wire, and border guards, it also takes advantage of China’s predatory mood to get China’s de facto endorsement of the NLL’s nullity. Even better, it drives a wedge between China and South Korea at just as Xi Jinping visits Seoul, and just as North Korea’s plans for a fourth nuclear test are straining its own relations with China.

(North Korea could teach the South a thing or two about how to deal with illegal fishing.)

What’s in this for China? Fish, for starters. But is there really a danger that Chinese fishermen would cross the NLL, invade South Korean waters, and violently resist efforts to repel them?

Yonhap claims that “more than 100 Chinese vessels” are now operating near the NLL every day.

“Last year, most Chinese vessels worked north of the NLL, but recently they worked very close to the NLL and some crossed the line,” a South Korean Coast Guard official was quoted as saying. “So we dispatched additional patrol ships and special Coast Guard forces to the areas.”

South Korea’s Coast Guard has seized six Chinese boats that violated the NLL since May 19, including three 10-ton vessels on Tuesday. The South Korean government notified China of the illegal fishing and called for them to stop, the report said. [Kyodo News]

Chinese boats have a long history of entering South Korean waters, fishing illegally, and even killing South Korean Coast Guardsmen who board their vessels.

Sixty-nine South Koreans have been killed or injured since January 2003 while trying to catch Chinese ships operating illegally in South Korean waters, according to data from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. Video clips from the scenes show Chinese boats fitted with high sides and tools that can be used as weapons to block inspectors from coming aboard. [Yonhap]

According to that last article, the issue of illegal Chinese fishing in South Korean waters has also become a contentious issue in talks between South Korea and China over a proposed free-trade agreement between the two countries. South Korea wants language in the proposed FTA requiring Chinese sellers to certify that any marine products were not harvested from Korean waters illegally. China refuses to even discuss the problem, which is troubling by itself. After all, why wouldn’t China agree to stay on its side of the line if the line itself isn’t disputed?

What is China’s longer game? Those of us outside the Forbidden City can only speculate, but I’ll offer my speculation under the theory that even paranoid people have real enemies. Some context may be helpful:

first island chain

[via The Economist]

Even this map doesn’t fully represent the scale of the problem. Japan’s Senkaku Islands lie on the east side of the dashed red line, despite China’s recent assertion of claims against them. Some Chinese have also been calling for their government to assert claims to Okinawa, which hosts several large U.S. military bases. Then, there’s China’s unsettling “Northeast Project,” interpreted by some Korean and American scholars as a potential claim to North Korean territory.

If this little fishing lease is the thin end of the wedge between Korea and its territorial waters in the Yellow Sea, it would be among the least creative of China’s recent boundary reinterpretations. This year, it’s only a short-term lease (no need to be alarmed!). Maybe the next one will be for five years. After that, it will be a longer-term lease, like China’s lease of the Rajin Port. If, by the time of reunification — when Korea will have so many other problems to contend with — China has effectively grabbed up the Spratleys, the Paracels, and all the waters surrounding Taiwan, would Korea really be in any position to resist, particularly if its next President is an accommodationist from Roh Moo-Hyun’s mold?

Further south, Ieodo, a/k/a Socotra Rock, where South Korea maintains a “research” station, falls within China’s unilaterally declared Air Defense Identification Zone. China has occasionally made claims to Ieodo, although China clarified in 2013 that there is no dispute. (International law doesn’t recognize territorial claims to submerged reefs anyway, so China hasn’t really relinquished anything. It’s the maritime claims that really matter.)

It isn’t hard to see where this could all be heading. At some point in time, Chinese scholars would be enlisted to conclude that the Yellow Sea is historically Chinese, and the lease would become a permanent claim. Hey, maybe it’s all my paranoid conspiracy theory. Maybe, but how many of you had you even heard of the Senkaku Islands three years ago? And maybe China could clarify all of this by agreeing to stop fishing in South Korea’s waters, and with the geographical premise of that agreement.

For Asian nations, and for nations across the Pacific that depend on trade with them, there’s an obvious commonality of interests in preserving freedom of navigation and the protection of peaceful commerce. Protecting those interests requires the deterrence of aggressive Chinese claims to islands and waters that are controlled by China’s neighbors. Military deterrence will be an important part of that.

President Obama speaks of a “pivot” to Asia, but to the extent one sees evidence of any such pivot, it mostly consists of adding more Americans to our military presence in the Pacific. That’s better than nothing, but nowhere near as good as a new regional military alliance — an Asian NATO — to coordinate the mutual defense of those common interests, and share the risks and costs of defending those interests.

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