President Park Geun-hye’s decision to disband the organization of maritime police revealed the depth of her wrath at its poor initial response to the ferry disaster last month. Most Koreans agree that many of the 302 lives lost in the tragic accident could have been saved if it had carried out rescue work in a swift and proper manner.
In the face of growing public anger with their incapacity and neglect of duty, maritime police officers had seemed resigned to harsh measures to be taken against them before Park issued a statement to the nation Monday in connection with the disaster. Still, Park’s decision to dismantle the entire organization came as a shock to them.
It may be an exaggeration to argue that Park made a scapegoat of maritime police to soothe the anger of the bereaved families and the public. It may be more accurate to say the president wanted to send a strong signal of her firm will to overhaul the government system to prevent the recurrence of a similar tragedy.
Nevertheless, it appears to make sense to raise questions about the appropriateness of her proposal to transfer its maritime security duty as well as search and rescue function to an envisioned agency to take charge of safety matters. It is an increasingly important mission for maritime police to patrol the seas around the Korean Peninsula and protect national interests in the spacious exclusive economic zone. This role has been highlighted in curbing illegal fishing by Chinese vessels and guarding the Dokdo islets, which is also claimed by Japan.
A maritime police officer was killed by a Chinese skipper in 2011 during a fight for control of a trawler illegally fishing in Korean waters. Public outrage erupted here at the time, prompting calls for further augmenting the manpower and equipment of maritime police.
With China and Japan beefing up their coast guards amid an escalating territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea, Korea also needs to continue strengthening its maritime security. It should be noted that the Coast Guard often takes the place of naval ships, whose intervention risks military conflict.
The envisioned safety agency, which lacks law enforcement power, may be ineffective in cracking down on illegal fishing by Chinese fishermen, who often resist violently. Giving such authority to the new unit would be an insufficient stopgap measure. It may not be plausible to reverse the work to disband the maritime police organization by the end of next month. But thorough consideration is needed to work out a better alternative like the establishment of a coast guard given the strengthened maritime security function.