Chas­ing Chi­nese at sea is per­ilous

Thou­sands of boats fish il­le­gally and each raid can turn vi­o­lent

JoongAng Daily - - National - BY LEE MY­OUNG-SOO, CHOI MO-RAN se­lee@joongang.co.kr

Park Se-cheol fears dy­ing at sea, but drown­ing isn’t what ter­ri­fies him. As a 32-year-old Coast Guard of­fi­cer, he’s a strong swimmer.

What haunts him are Chi­nese fish­er­men.

“They’re re­ally resistant th­ese days,” he said, re­fer­ring to the hun­dreds — and pos­si­bly thou­sands — of Chi­nese fish­er­men il­le­gally fish­ing in the Korean West Sea ev­ery year. Gov­ern­ment statis­tics show that 1,586 Chi­nese ves­sels were busted from 2011 to last July.

Park’s job is to take part in those busts: to raid the ves­sels il­le­gally fish­ing in Korean wa­ters, con­fis­cate the ships, car­gos and crews, and bring for­mal charges against them.

But that job is a lot riskier than it was in the past. To­day, Park says, it’s “life-threat­en­ing.”

“There’s a lot of them bran­dish­ing knives and beer bot­tles,” he said. “Con­stantly, I ask my­self: ‘Am I go­ing to die to­day?’”

A re­porter from the JoongAng Ilbo fol­lowed Park on Thurs­day in what he calls a “life-risk­ing” tour.

Soon after the re­porter boarded a 3,000-ton ship with Park at around 2:40 a.m. in wa­ters 120 kilo­me­ters (75 miles) west of Gun­san, North Je­olla, a voice pierced the dark­ness: “Chi­nese fish­ing boat within visual dis­tance!”

Ten­sion filled the air. A bat­tle had be­gun.

Four Coast Guard ships, in­clud­ing Park’s, nav­i­gated to­ward about 40 il­le­gal Chi­nese ves­sels clus­tered to­gether. The tide was high and the wind strong. The chase con­tin­ued for 30 min­utes.

In the end only two boats were caught, with 3,000 kilo­grams (6,613 pounds) of an­chovies and 2,500 kilo­grams of fish be­tween them. The raids were ac­com­plished with­out a vi­o­lent re­ac­tion from the in­ter­lop­ers.

That’s not al­ways the case.

On Oct. 10, a Chi­nese skip­per, aged 45, was fa­tally shot dur­ing a raid in wa­ters 144 kilo­me­ters west of Wangde­ung Is­land, Buan County. All 19 Chi­nese fish­er­men from the ship are cur­rently de­tained by the Mokpo Coast Guard, with six charged with phys­i­cal as­sault as of Fri­day.

In 2011, a Korean Coast Guard of­fi­cer was stabbed to death by a Chi­nese fish­er­man re­sist­ing ar­rest.

Il­le­gal fish­ing has been a prob­lem be­tween Korea and China for a long time, but it rarely leads to diplo­matic feuds.

In the case of the cap­tain killed this month, Beijing said it was “ap­palled” that one of its na­tion­als lost his life due to “Korea’s vi­o­lent en­force­ment of law,” and urged a “thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion” of the mat­ter.

A Thurs­day re­port by the JoongAng Ilbo shed light on how the Chi­nese ves­sels are dis­posed of.

The fish­er­men are charged a max­i­mum of 200 mil­lion won ($188,094) to re­trieve their ves­sels, but not many bother to pay the full amount. Of the 122 Chi­nese ves­sels seized by the Coast Guard this year, 96 were re­claimed after the own­ers paid a small amount. The cap­tains of 19 ships vowed through a writ­ten con­tract that they would “pay off the bal­ance by work­ing in a la­bor house.”

The Coast Guard puts aban­doned ves­sels up for pub­lic auc­tion, but most don’t get sold be­cause they’re made of shabby ma­te­ri­als, said Jeong Myeong­gap, an of­fi­cer at the In­cheon Coast Guard.

“We can’t store them for­ever,” Jeong said. “Main­te­nance costs are another is­sue. So we dis­card them.”

From 2010 to last year, the Coast Guard paid 133.6 mil­lion won to dis­card 12 Chi­nese ves­sels, he said.

Be­fore dis­posal, some ves­sels are man­aged by a pri­vate company, but main­te­nance costs, which can be 50,000 to 80,000 won per day per ves­sel, are paid by the gov­ern­ment. On av­er­age, they are kept for two months, Jeong said.

“At least we can get scrap metal from an iron ves­sel. But with wooden boats, there’s re­ally noth­ing to sal­vage,” he added.

By Oh Jong-chan

The Coast Guard raids a Chi­nese ves­sel found fish­ing il­le­gally on Thurs­day in a mar­itime eco­nomic zone ex­clu­sive to Korea in the West Sea. Four Chi­nese ves­sels were seized dur­ing a spe­cial crack­down, which be­gan the day be­fore.

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