|Crab wars: Calming the waters in the
By Brad Glosserman
(Used by permission of the Pacific Forum CSIS)
peak of the crab season, which means the two Korean
navies are facing off in the Yellow (or West) Sea. The
blue crabs are an important source of food and foreign
exchange for the impoverished North, and they are
equally coveted by the fishermen in the South.
Unfortunately, the sea border - the Northern Limit Line,
or NLL - is disputed and fishing boats from both sides,
escorted by warships, cross the boundary daily, raising
tensions and risking a clash. Plainly, there is a need
for a confidence-building regime in these waters.
The possibility of an armed encounter is not
merely hypothetical. In 1999, an exchange of gunfire
wounded several South Korean sailors and killed up to 30
North Koreans. Last year, a June gun battle sank one
South Korean warship, claiming six sailors' lives and an
unknown number of North Korean casualties. And right on
schedule, last week South Korea twice fired warning
shots at a North Korean fishing boat, the second time
only hours after the North warned that a naval clash
could spark a war.
There are two explanations
for the clashes. The first is that North Korea is trying
to start a fight. Pyongyang has never recognized the NLL
- it was designated by the United Nations after the
Korean War - and this is one way to push a settlement up
the negotiating agenda. North Korea might also be
sending political signals in a way that is less
provocative than similar actions on the Demilitarized
Alternatively, the crossings are
economically (rather than politically) driven - a
persuasive theory since both sides violate the NLL. Both
countries harvest the blue crab - two or three tons can
be worth as much as US$70,000 - and the peak fishing
season lasts only from May 1 to July 15. South Korea
takes about 3,300 tons, or one-third of its crab catch,
from Yellow Sea waters; it's the main industry of nearby
Yeongpyeong Island. North Korea exported 1,879 tons of
crab, worth $7.8 million, to China in 2001, a sixfold
increase over the previous year, and has sent similar
amounts to Japan.
If the confrontations are not
deliberate, then both sides have an interest in trying
to minimize the chances of an armed clash. Ideally, the
two countries would sign an incidents-at-sea agreement
(INCSEA), to establish mechanisms for communication and
manage encounters at sea. In the absence of an INCSEA,
both sides can still gain much-needed experience
communicating, maneuvering, and operating in one
another's presence through cooperative initiatives.
If the faceoffs are intentional, then the
political calculus regarding any confidence-building
measure changes. That does not mean that it is
impossible to realize them. It does mean that any
cooperative effort to reduce risks has to provide
greater benefits than does the status quo.
Jennifer Koelm, a maritime security specialist
at the Cooperative Monitoring Center of the Sandia
National Laboratories, has developed a number of
maritime confidence-building measures for the two
Koreas. One promising option is joint fishing ventures.
Bilateral fishing arrangements already manage fishing
resources between China, South Korea and Japan. The
October 2002 inter-Korean ministerial talks included
discussions about the establishment of a joint committee
that would handle fishing cooperation and possible
ventures. Although most discussion has focused on the
East Sea, a high-value blue-crab fishery straddles the
NLL and may provide an economic incentive for
Success would depend on separating
border disputes from fisheries exploitation and
management. The South has designated a "red line" about
5.6 kilometers south of the NLL as a boundary to
prohibit its fishing vessels from getting too near the
NLL. Establishing joint access to a zone between the
South Korean red line and an area north of the NLL could
be economically beneficial to both sides.
designated fishing zone could be the starting point for
an South-North joint fishing venture, similar in
principle to the joint manufacturing projects in the
North's free trade zones. Since North Korean fishermen
normally sell their catch to China and can't reach a
wider international market, they could benefit from
South Korea's marketing capabilities. South Korea would
gain access to areas previously off-limits. A joint
venture would also ensure sustainable resources and
profits. Coordinated enforcement operations would
require frequent communications between Southern and
Northern vessels and additional experience maneuvering
in each other's presence, decreasing the possibility of
clashes or misunderstandings.
A second option is
joint search and rescue (SAR) operations. North Korea
and the United Nations Command recognized the importance
of SAR in a meeting last August in Panmunjom. The two
countries could move from visits to a South Korean
Rescue Coordination Center to demonstrations of SAR
procedures to a SAR exercise with experts from both
sides. SAR telecommunication links could lay the
foundation of an infrastructure for a wide range of
future maritime security-based interactions.
third option is oil-spill response. Although North Korea
imports most of its crude oil overland from China, it
would still be punished by a major oil spill in the West
Sea. That is not a remote possibility: both Incheon and
China's Dalian port host hundreds of medium-sized
tankers annually. Moreover, as North Korean West Sea oil
reserves generate commercial interest, Pyongyang may
require expanded pollution-control capabilities.
South-North cooperation might focus on coordinated
responses to oil or hazardous-chemical spills.
fourth option involves sea-borne inter-Korean trade.
Currently, 500 South Korean companies have North Korean
factories for manufacturing and more than 90 percent of
inter-Korean cargo trade uses the maritime shipping
route between Incheon and Nampo. Transportation costs to
North Korean ports remain high partly because vessels
must detour to avoid restricted zones. The South and
North could cooperate to expedite customs procedures,
ensure record compatibility, and decrease the possible
risks of fraudulent documentation. In addition, tracking
commercial vessel movements along the West Sea corridor
would allow vessels to take more direct routes, reducing
shipping costs while maintaining North Korean coastal
security. Similar proposals exist for the east coast.
Persistent tensions along the Korean Peninsula
make confidence-building measures both more difficult
and more imperative. Recent efforts to open rail and
road lines prove they are not impossible, however.
Maritime cooperation is an equally promising option. The
key is making Pyongyang appreciate the value of such
efforts. Economic advantages have a remarkable way of
influencing North Korean thinking; maritime cooperation
could change North Korea's calculus and take some of the
danger out of the blue-crab season.
Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This
article is used by permission.