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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 121 (August 26, 2010)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

North Korea Confirms Seizing South Korean Fishing Boat

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- After remaining silent for more than 10 days, North Korea said last week that it had seized a South Korean fishing boat with seven crewmembers on board that apparently strayed into its waters.

   It was North Korea's first confirmation on the fate of the ship and its crew since they disappeared on Aug. 8. In a short dispatch from Pyongyang, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Aug. 19 claimed the boat, Daeseung, had violated the inter-Korean border in the East Sea.

   The 41-ton South Korean boat was carrying four South Koreans and three Chinese fishermen when it disappeared on Aug. 8 while operating in a joint fishing area in the East Sea.

   South Korea has urged the North to release the abducted fishing boat and explain the circumstances surrounding the seizure. But up until last week, Pyongyang had refused to respond to several inquiries by Seoul on the fate of the ship and its crew.

   "A South Korean boat that was fishing in our exclusive economic zone in the East Sea was seized by the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA) Navy on Aug. 8," the KCNA dispatch said. "A preliminary investigation revealed the boat, with four South Koreans and three Chinese on board, intruded into our economic zone."

   The seizure came amid high military tensions between the Koreas over the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship near their western sea border in March. Forty-six sailors died in the sinking that North Korea denies any role in.

   The seizure was made during a major South Korean naval exercise in the Yellow Sea, for which the North threatened retaliation.

   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.

   The socialist nation, however, said the squid fishing boat was seized on Aug. 10, in contrast to South Korea saying that it disappeared on Aug. 8.

   At the North's confirmation of the seizure, South Korea renewed calls for the release of the detainees.

   On Aug. 20, South Korea's Red Cross sent North Korea another message calling for the release of the crew amid high tension between the divided states.

   "As the North has notified us of its seizure of the Daeseung, our Red Cross just now sent another message to North Korea at 10:00 a.m." through a western military hotline, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said in a briefing.

   The Red Cross, which works closely with the South Korean government on humanitarian issues involving the divided states, had already sent a similar message on Aug. 11. No reply has been received as of Aug. 25.

   Lee said her government has called "for the prompt return of our boat and the crew by the North" as stated in the latest Red Cross message, addressed to the head of its North Korean counterpart. The South has been calling for the release "on humanitarian grounds and in line with international customs and law."

   North Korean authorities received the message when it arrived on their side shortly after 10:00 a.m., Lee added.

   South Korean officials said the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang also urged the release of the crew by contacting the North's Foreign Ministry following the seizure.

   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. Then it was towed by the North Korean navy to the northeastern port of Songjin.

   On Aug. 8, 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.

   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.

   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.

   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.

  (END)