The European Union’s preliminary designation of Korea as a country failing to meet its international obligation to fight illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is an embarrassing development. Although at this time this is meant to be a warning signal only from the EU to push Korea to take remedial action as quickly as possible, it is also probable that the warning turns into an official designation in the future, which may lead to the import ban by the EU of the fisheries products from Korea. Given the global stigma associated with IUU fishing, the EU’s recent designation of Korea as such raises a flag that a serious action needs to be taken domestically.
This is yet another dent to the image of the country, after the United States’ similar designation of Korea in January this year. With “yellow cards” from the two major countries, Korea’s position in the international forums discussing this issue will become more precarious: Combating IUU has been one of the top priorities of the international community for the past decade, spearheaded by FAO and relevant NGOs. As previously noted in this column after the U.S. designation, the IUU fishing has been criticized by the world community for a long time because of its devastating effect on global fish stocks. It is indeed alarming that both countries, in the same year, have designated Korea as an IUU-prone country.
Korea hurriedly amended its law (Ocean Industries Development Act) in July as a preemptive measure against a likely EU designation, but it apparently did not work. The core criticism from the EU is that Korea has not fulfilled the international obligation to require its vessels to install a device called a vessel monitoring system, which tracks the location and activity of vessels engaging in fishing activities in the high seas. The amendment becomes effective as of Jan. 31, but the mandatory installment of the VMS has been deferred until July 30, 2014. Reportedly, this deferral has been the main reason that prompted the EU’s inclusion of Korea on the IUU country list.
Korea’s slow implementation of VMS requirements is indeed noteworthy considering the intensity of international attention to this very matter. The nature of the equipment being discussed makes the slow implementation more perplexing. VMS is a readily available electronic tracking device costing $3,000 to $5,000 per ship. Foreign observers who know Korea as a country saturated and obsessed with information technology would find it puzzling that the country is dragging its feet in installing this particular type of maritime electronic device. Korea’s slow implementation of this simple requirement can hardly find good excuses.
The IUU activity is a global problem. It is taking place in many countries ― that is why a global undertaking is called for in the first place. Questions are thus being raised if “singling out” Korea has been somehow motivated by an ulterior motive. Competition is intense between Korean vessels and European fishermen in seas off West Africa, where illegal fishing poses a peculiar problem because of its massive scale. Critics argue that the EU’s specific interest as well as an environmental concern may have been reflected in blacklisting Korea.
In any event, just how much emphasis some countries put on this particular issue when they deal with Korea is evidenced by the report that the United States is going to raise fishery subsidies ― of which IUU is the core component ― as one of the key outstanding issues to be discussed with Korea in advance in the context of Korea’s participation in the TPP negotiations. To Korea, then, addressing this issue almost becomes a membership fee for the mega-FTA. This means that this issue will stay with us next year and perhaps for many more years.
As many of us know, the best way to save Korea from any further embarrassment and to avoid other countries’ using this as a card against Korea is to implement these international obligations as promptly as possible. Korea is already paying a high price.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is an associate professor of law at Seoul National University. ― Ed.