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[Herald Interview] Coast Guard chief lays down plans to boost Korea’s maritime security

Korea Coast Guard Commissioner Jeong Bong-hoon. Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald
Korea Coast Guard Commissioner Jeong Bong-hoon. Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald
The newly minted Korea Coast Guard Commissioner Jeong Bong-hoon, who celebrated his 50 days in office on Jan. 24, is busy devising a blueprint for the Coast Guard. With a background in security and investigation, he has detailed broad ideas for Korea’s future as maritime power. It took over an hour for Jeong to discuss plans he intends to pursue as chief of the Coast Guard. The following is the full transcript of the interview.

Q: How was your first two months in office?

A: To serve the country well, our organization of some 13,000 people needs to work in unity. Until now, the Coast Guard did not have a slogan that conveys our common goal. After taking office, I made the slogan, “Always go and check.” The Coast Guard should always be at the site where it’s happening.

Q: Is that the spirit of the Coast Guard?

A: Right. Our strategy is called 4F: field-friendly, people-friendly, colleague-friendly, communication and future-friendly. All these four aspects are important for us to do the job well. All of our jobs will be done with this principle in mind. The Coast Guard should be out in the field, always. That’s where all the answers are. We set up a comprehensive sea security network where our patrol ships make rounds around the five most vulnerable spots every day. We have to be proactive and manage risks preemptively. The sea is also where a lot of people make a living. While ensuring safety our policies have to be acceptable to the people. Our duty is also to inform people about the policies.

Q: You are the second Coast Guard chief who was a maritime police officer himself since the enforcement of the Coast Guard Act in 2020.

A: I think there is a lot of expectation that I will understand the members of the organization well. Also that I would have a lot of knowledge about sea safety.

Q: What drew you to the Coast Guard?

A: The elementary school I went to was adjacent to a beach in Yeosu, South Jeolla Province. I would go swim and play by the beach every chance I got. Sometimes I would come in to class late because I was busy swimming. I grew up next to the sea, so I feel like it’s kind of meant to be.

Q: The Coast Guard works close to the people, but not many people know that.

A: To serve the community better, we came up with the “doctor guardship.” In the past, hospital ships used to provide medical services to people living in island areas, but they have almost disappeared. We signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Health and Welfare to establish an emergency medical service system that connects the land and the sea. We plan on expanding this project further. When there’s an emergency, the dispatchers will communicate the situation in real time with a medical institution, give first aid and transfer patients to the hospital. The doctor guardship will be like a medical helicopter but for the sea.

Q: What are some of the Coast Guard’s duties?

A: We must prepare for the future. The front of the US-China rivalry for maritime hegemony has approached the vicinity of our waters from Southeast Asia. We’re sandwiched with China on the east and Japan on the west. The exclusive economic zone means the sea determines the future of our resources, minerals and so on, and each country is strategically beefing up its powers. During my time in office, I plan on replacing old ships with new ones, add larger vessels to patrol around waters both east and west, as well as large helicopters.

Q: What are your long-term goals?

A: There are no closed-circuit TVs in the sea. On land, when a person goes missing you’ve got CCTVs to assist you, but out in the sea there’s no way to do that. Artificial satellites are the CCTVs for the sea. One of our long-term projects is to launch an observation satellite in 2025, and then to launch a communications and search and rescue satellite in 2027. To run this satellite-based search and rescue there needs to be a dedicated center. There’s going to be a new building, staff with related training and expertise, to be ready for operation by 2025. The center will analyze the data collected by these satellites to locate threats to safety, national security, economy and the environment so that they can be prevented from becoming a serious problem. The US and Japan are already running this wide-area maritime surveillance and information network called the MDA or Maritime Domain Awareness.

Q: Do you have any other future projects in mind?

A: Another idea that I have is drone carriers for search and rescue operations. From patrol ships you can only observe about 2 kilometers left and right, but with a drone it’s possible to observe up to 50 kilometers. A patrol ship can sail 35 to 38 kilometers per hour, while a drone can go up to 110 to 120 kilometers per hour. With drones, the range of observation is much wider and the search can be done much quicker. Drone carriers will function as a maritime security platform for rescuing missing persons. Research will be carried out to see if this idea has the potential to be realized in the future.

Q: Why drones?

A: Our waters are 4.5 times wider than the land area. The area that patrol ships can respond to in real time is only about 16 percent of the waters, missing out on over 80 percent of the area. Early response is key to maritime search and rescue. The key is to minimize the time between a report and dispatch. I’ve heard that drones are being looked into as a search and rescue tool in the US. We still have to wait for the results of the research.

Q: Could drones replace search and rescue teams in bad weather?

A: There are drones that can withstand a wind speed of 14 meters per second. It’s time to think about putting drones to use.

Q: How does Korea strengthen maritime security?

A: Countries are already competing to assert their hegemony over the sea. Korea has to balance between Japan and China, and strengthen its coastal powers to become an equal match. Without maritime security there’s no peace or prosperity. To boost maritime security Korea needs to adopt advanced technologies and achieve maritime domain awareness.

Q: How important is R&D to the Coast Guard?

A: This year we’ve got 42.6 billion won ($35.6 million) in budget for research and development, up nearly 20 billion won from last year. Next year, we’re aiming to get about 60 billion. We’re also turning our research and development taskforce into a regular department.

Q: How does the criminal procedures reform affect Coast Guard investigations?

A: After the revision of the Criminal Procedure Act last year, the Coast Guard has pushed policies to make its investigations more human rights-friendly and specialized. As a result, prosecution requests for supplementary investigation dropped to 5.45 percent in December last year from 16.3 percent January the same year. The Coast Guard plans on improving its investigation capabilities through training and addition of experts.

By Kang Seung-yeon, Shin Sang-yoon, Kim Arin (spa@heraldcorp.com) (ken@heraldcorp.com) (arin@heraldcorp.com)

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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