Last week’s incident in which Chinese fishing vessels rammed into a South Korean Coast Guard speed boat and caused it to sink should prompt authorities to regard Chinese fishermen engaged in illegal fishing as a serious threat to our maritime sovereignty and national security.
It is no news that some Chinese fishermen violating our territorial waters resort to violence in resisting crackdowns by the Korean Coast Guard. It is common for them to wield weapons such as knives, axes and steel pipes. So attempts by Korean officers to raid and seize Chinese boats often turn into life-threatening situations.
A South Korean Coast Guard officer was stabbed to death during one such melee in 2011 and three Chinese fishermen who locked themselves in the engine room of their boat were burned to death in a violent clash last month.
The scene that took place last Friday in the West Sea was similar. Two Korean speed boats dispatched from a Coast Guard patrol ship were trying to seize some of an armada of about 40 Chinese fishing ships. Seven officers from one of the boats raided one of the Chinese ships.
Then a Chinese vessel rammed into the boat which only had its captain on board. The boat capsized, and a second Chinese ship hit it again, sinking it. The captain and other crew members were rescued by their colleagues, but all the Chinese ships fled.
The Coast Guard said later that the Chinese ships’ attacks constituted “attempted murder.” Woo Sang-ho, floor leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, aptly called the Chinese attackers “pirates.”
The Coast Guard pledged to get tough and will consider the use of force. Few Chinese officials and fishermen will take that seriously. The Foreign Ministry, as usual, called in Chinese diplomats to file an official protest and demand due follow-up action from the Beijing government. We know from experience that “diplomatic” efforts will bring about little change.
True, we need to be prudent and cautious and should not resort to excessive use of force in dealing with illegal fishing involving China. But last Friday’s incident showed that we need to learn from other countries that have taken tough actions against such acts.
For instance, the Argentine Navy used machine guns to destroy a Chinese vessel caught illegally fishing in March this year. The Russian navy also fired warship guns against fleeing Chinese vessels last December. Drastic action was even taken by the Indonesian Navy, which blew up about 170 foreign vessels -- including Chinese ones -- that it had seized due to illegal fishing.
As public outcry mounts over the latest incident, ruling and opposition parties are urging the government to take strong action against the violent intruders from China.
Woo suggested that the Navy work with the Coast Guard and Chung Jin-suk, floor leader of the ruling party, proposed a new regional Coast Guard unit near the five westernmost islands to tackle the Chinese illegal fishing.
The problem is that President Park does not appear as concerned about the issue. The only Blue House comment came from its spokesman, who said the incident was “regrettable.”
Park might have maintained such a mediocre attitude toward the issue in consideration of ties with China. The government waited 31 hours before making public Friday’s incident, with Coast Guard officials saying they had needed time for discussions with relevant government officials because it was a “diplomatic” issue.
Park should come forward -- even at the risk of hurting her relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping -- and take steps to protect our uniformed officers.
One such step could involve her personally assuring the Coast Guard of the use of firearms if their lives are in danger.
The commander-in-chief should realize the troopers out at sea are dealing with pirates, not unarmed thieves.