North Korea Seizes South Korean Fishing Boat Amid High Tension
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Raising already high tensions, North Korea seized a South Korean fishing boat that was operating in the East Sea near the North's territorial waters, the Unification Ministry said on Aug. 8.
Four South Korean and three Chinese crew members were on board when a North Korean patrol boat apparently towed it to the northeastern port of Songjin. North Korea has yet to offer any word on the state of the crew.
The incident came amid deadlocked inter-Korean relations. South Korea and the U.S. recently held massive naval drills south of the East Sea border between the Koreas, after they accused Pyongyang of sinking a South Korean warship in the West Sea in March, killing 46 sailors.
The 41-ton squid fishing boat, Daeseung 55, was apprehended on Aug. 8 from waters presumed to be within the North's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the East Sea.
One of the crew members told the South's Coast Guard via a satellite phone that the vessel was seized by a North Korean patrol boat.
The captain of the boat reported "normal conditions" around 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 7 when contacted by South Korean maritime authorities via regular radio contact.
"But we lost the signal around 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 8 and later confirmed via satellite that the boat was being towed by a North Korean patrol boat heading to North Korea's northeastern port of Songjin," a Coast Guard official said.
The ship, which sailed from the port of Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, on Aug. 1, was expected to return around Sept. 10, the official said.
The Coast Guard said it was investigating whether the boat trespassed into the North's exclusive economic zone and called for the prompt release of the crew in line with international law and customs.
"It has been found that the Daeseung crew is being investigated by North Korean authorities," a coast guard official said.
The boat had been operating in a joint fishing area off the North's eastern area of Musudan-ri before it was seized, a defense source in Seoul said.
A unification ministry spokesman said it appears that the North Korean authorities are questioning the seven crew members.
North Korea has offered no word yet on the seized fishing boat, the Unification Ministry said on Aug. 9.
"So far, there has been no notification from the North Korean side regarding this incident," ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung told reporters.
South Korea has urged the North to release the boat as early as possible. "The government has urged the North to deal quickly with the case and release our crew members and their boat in accordance with international law and practices," Chun said.
Chun also said it is still unclear exactly where the fishing boat was seized, including whether it was inside the North's EEZ as presumed. The government and the Coast Guard are trying to confirm details of the seizure, he said.
Identifying whether the 41-ton Daeseung trespassed into North Korea's waters is key to determining how South Korea will deal with the seizure, spokesman Chun told reporters.
"We're going to determine what our next steps will be, based on the investigation," Chun said, adding he is not aware of any contact between China and South Korea over the seizure.
As there was no response from the North, South Korea's Red Cross sent a message to the North on Aug. 11 urging the prompt release of the crew.
North Korea accepted the message delivered through a western military hotline between the two countries at 10 a.m., Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said in a briefing.
The message, addressed to the North's top Red Cross official, contains a call by his South Korean counterpart to free the seven crew members of the Daeseung "promptly in line with international law and customs and on humanitarian grounds," Lee said.
"We have also asked the North to explain in detail how the fishing boat was seized," Lee said, adding the Red Cross channel is often used in inter-Korean issues involving civilian boats.
The seizure came amid high tensions between the two Koreas in the wake of the deadly March sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan near their western sea border.
Following the joint South Korea-U.S. military drills in the East Sea in July, South Korea conducted its own massive naval exercises for five days from Aug. 5 designed as a show of force and a warning against further North Korean provocations.
On Aug. 9, North Korea fired more than 100 rounds of artillery along the Yellow Sea border near the area where South Korea had just ended the naval drills that mobilized some 4,500 troops.
In July of last year, a South Korean fishing boat, the Yeonan, accidentally crossed into North Korea's waters and was towed to a nearby port. The boat was released about a month later.