Every year from April to June, the waters between China and South Korea – the Yellow Sea in China and the West Sea in South Korea – experience a spring crab season. For South Korea, along with the fatty pike crabs, there are swarms of Chinese fishing boats that fish illegally day and night. The problem of illegal fishing by Chinese fishing boats has been plaguing Korea for a long time, and has not been solved since 2001 when the China-Korea Fisheries Agreement came into effect, but has become increasingly serious, and has become one of the main reasons for the depletion of fishery resources and the deterioration of the marine environment in the West Sea of Korea.
The complex demarcation of the West Sea has also made illegal fishing an issue closely related to Korea’s maritime sovereignty. Currently, South Korea and China have not reached an agreement on the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone, and there are temporary measure waters between the two countries, and whether illegal fishing in these waters can be effectively managed will directly affect future negotiations. In fact, in recent years, Chinese naval activities near the maritime demarcation line unilaterally designated by China have been increasing in frequency and scope, and at the end of last year, they crossed the line and violated the waters of Korea’s Northern Limit Line (NLL). South Korean diplomatic and military experts told VOA that China’s attempts to internalize South Korea’s West Sea are becoming more blatant as the U.S.-China rivalry grows more intense.
The Death of Illegal Fishing in South Korea’s West Sea: Depleted Resources, Deteriorating Environment
“China has been fishing illegally for 30 or 40 years, starting with one or two small fishing boats, but now there are hundreds of them every day,” Park Tae-won, a 58-year-old fisherman from Yeonpyeong Island in Incheon, told the Voice of America. Yeonpyeong Island is one of five islands in the West Sea of South Korea. The islands are extremely close to the northern boundary and are closer to North Korea than South Korea. The nearby waters are rich in pike crabs, and while they provide an economic source for local fishermen, they have also become a major area for Chinese fishing boats to engage in illegal fishing. According to the Central Korea Regional Maritime Police Agency, an average of 183 Chinese fishing boats appeared along the northern boundary every day in April this year, more than three times as many as in the same period last year.
“As far as I know, most of these Chinese fishing boats are unlicensed and illegal fishing boats that can’t afford to pay the North Korean (North Korean) fishing fees and use this area as a stronghold,” Park Tae-won said. Park Tae-won was referring to North Korea’s fishing rights deal with China. The report of the panel of experts released by the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee against North Korea in late March this year stated that North Korea was illegally selling fishing rights to Chinese fishermen on the Internet to earn foreign currency in violation of Security Council resolutions. China, however, refused to investigate further, saying the information in the report lacked accuracy and concrete evidence.
What makes Park Tae-won even more angry and concerned is the way these Chinese fishing boats are fishing. He told Voice of America that the fish migrate to the waters around Yeonpyeong Island mainly along three waterways, and the Chinese fishing boats have been operating constantly in the most prominent one before the start of the South Korean fishing season. “All the fish that were supposed to follow that waterway to here were caught, and there were no fish coming from our side.” The catch of Korean pike in the West Sea has been declining year by year, and this year’s average daily catch is only half that of previous years. “This situation really makes people don’t know what to do, and we already feel firsthand that the fishery resources are depleting”.
This fish shortage is also likely to become a long-term phenomenon. “Chinese fishing boats only use bottom trawls when fishing,” said Park Tae-won, adding that the nets “stir up the sea bed and drag the boat forward while pocketing all the fish. Not just shellfish, but all the fish in the sea bed and water are caught and taken away in one go. Because bottom trawling is so damaging to the marine ecosystem, it is very strictly regulated in Korea, but “China has been fishing in this way for a long time, and we are worried about the integrity of the ecosystem in the sea”.
Compared to the rough and tumble of Chinese fishing boats, Yeonpyeong Island fishermen are subject to various restrictions, and the asymmetry of the rules has created a vicious circle. “We can only fish between 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset, but Chinese fishing boats are completely unrestricted, and some of them only fish at night in order to be able to cross the border between the north and the south.” The South Korean government has also set strict standards for local fishermen’s fishing boats and other equipment. “The fishermen have invested a lot of money for this, but the fishing situation is not good and they have no choice but to use illegal fishing methods as much as possible”, said Park Tae-won, lowering his voice and showing slight embarrassment.
The Voice of America contacted the West Sea Fisheries Management Mission of the South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries about illegal fishing by Chinese fishing boats, but the other side declined to be interviewed.
China’s naval activities in the West Sea have increased, and its intentions to internalize the sea have become clear.
The complex environment of the West Sea also gives the issue of illegal fishing a complexity that goes beyond fisheries. Yoon Seok-jun, a research member at the Korea Institute of Military Studies, told VOA that Chinese fishing boats fishing at the northern boundary has exacerbated the conflict between the two Koreas’ navies, and that “illegal Chinese fishing has led to two small-scale naval battles between the two Koreas in the past decade.
More important is the impact on the exclusive economic zone negotiations. Yoon Seok-joon noted that on this issue, “China has ignored international law and continues to claim a historically established vested right. That is, historically, China has more activities in the West Sea and has priority rights.” Therefore, in order to accumulate bargaining chips, South Korea must show effective management of the issue of illegal fishing by Chinese fishing vessels.
Korea and China have huge differences in the principle of delineating the EEZ, with Korea insisting on the middle as the demarcation while China argues that factors such as territory and population should be taken into account, resulting in slow progress in the negotiations. According to South Korean media reports, in 2013, China unilaterally set 124 degrees east longitude as the maritime demarcation line between the two countries and demanded that the South Korean navy not cross it. On the map, this demarcation line is very close to the boundary of China’s claimed exclusive economic zone, but even so, China is still not satisfied.
“China’s military activities in the area have increased significantly recently,” Shin Won Chik, a member of the National Assembly’s defense committee and a member of South Korea’s largest opposition party, the People Power Party, told the Voice of America. A source Shin obtained from South Korea’s Joint Staff Headquarters and Navy showed that China conducted about 20 carrier drills and about 10 anti-submarine drills in waters under South Korean jurisdiction in the West Sea last year, and that Chinese naval guard ships and maritime patrol planes were present almost daily in and over waters between 123-124 degrees east longitude. “China is trying to expand its own jurisdictional area in the West Sea through practical actions,” Shin Won Chik believes.
Kim Sung-han, director of the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and former undersecretary (deputy minister) of the Foreign Ministry, further pointed out to Voice of America that “China is weakening the waters of the provisional measures in order to gain an advantageous position in future negotiations on the delimitation of the maritime boundary and to expand the area of Chinese naval activities,” and “I I think China is adopting a gray zone strategy, that is, neither war nor peace, but by continuing to expand its navigation activities in the West Sea, eventually making the West Sea essentially China’s internal sea.
U.S.-China Maritime Rivalry Intensifies as China Seeks to Impede U.S. Cooperation with Allies
What is the purpose of China’s attempt to internalize the West Sea? According to Shin Yuan-chik, there are certainly economic interests such as fishing, but more than that, it is motivated by considerations of military security. “About 70 percent of China’s naval forces are deployed in Shanghai, Shandong Peninsula, Liaodong Peninsula and other areas near the West China Sea, and if operational security is not guaranteed here and they have to move south of Shanghai, they will immediately be exposed to the U.S. sphere of influence.”
Against the backdrop of intensifying U.S.-China maritime rivalry, inlandization of the West Sea could also serve the purpose of discouraging the U.S. from conducting military exercises there with allies such as South Korea. Yoon Seok-joon said, “The U.S.-China maritime competition is showing a trend of gradually moving from the South China Sea, Taiwan and the East China Sea to the West Sea, and the (Chinese) North Sea Fleet Command has the intention of responding in advance to future joint naval exercises conducted by South Korea and the U.S.” and “the U.S. is likely to raise the level of South Korea-U.S.-Japan naval cooperation to It is expected that the North Sea Fleet will respond to the cooperation of South Korean, U.S. and Japanese navies in the West Sea and South China Sea.
According to Sung-Han Kim, the internalization of the West Sea is also linked to the South China Sea issue. If the West Sea becomes China’s internal sea, it will be able to achieve the purpose of stopping South Korean warships from entering the South China Sea. “Even if it is to stop South Korea from assisting the U.S. in the South China Sea issue out of consideration for the U.S.-South Korea alliance, China will continue to expand its illegal navigation activities in the West Sea.”
And experts are divided on how to respond to such activities by China. Kim Sung-han and Shin Won Chik believe that it is necessary for the U.S. and South Korea to launch joint military exercises in the West Sea. According to Kim, “While South Korea does not need to rapidly deteriorate relations between South Korea and China over maritime issues, it is important to prevent China’s unilateral claims from being rationalized by the negative attitude of South Korea and the U.S.”
Shin Yuan-chik even noted with concern that “if the issue is kept ignored, (the West Sea) will become like the South China Sea. Even if it doesn’t happen immediately, the freedom of navigation of Korea will be affected step by step. China’s attempt to expand its jurisdiction in the West Sea will not only affect South Korea, but also threaten all free countries.
According to Yoon Seok-jun, although China’s military activities in the West Sea are increasing, “considering that U.S. forces in Korea have bases in areas near the West Sea such as Pyeongtaek and Osan, the Chinese navy will not act unnecessarily to irritate South Korea and give South Korea and the U.S. a reputation for strengthening naval cooperation and improving South Korea’s naval capabilities. “However, in case the scope of South Korea-U.S.-Japan naval cooperation is expanded from the South China Sea to the West Sea under the leadership of the U.S. Navy, then the Chinese Navy will certainly conduct response operations.”