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Disputed Sino-N. Korea Maritime Border Cause of Chinese Fishermen's Detention

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A maritime border dispute has apparently resurfaced between North Korea and China over the North's recent detention of 28 Chinese fishermen and three Chinese fishing boats.

   They were seized by an unidentified North Korean boat on the Yellow Sea on May 8 and returned home after being detained for 13 days. The Chinese did not pay ransom to the North Korean authorities, Chinese reports said on May 21.

   According to Chinese reports, the fishermen and their three vessels arrived at a harbor in the Jinzhou District of China's northeast port city of Dalian at about 7 a.m. on May 20. They were then sent to a local hospital for medical checkups.

   It is common for Chinese fishing boats to be seized by South Korean maritime police while fishing illegally in the South's waters but very rare for them to be seized by North Korea.

   Chinese media including the state-owned broadcaster CCTV said the fishing boats were seized in Chinese waters, but North Korea claimed it captured the Chinese fishermen and vessels because they violated North Korea's territorial waters.

   It is believed that a territorial water border in the Yellow Sea between the two allies must have been one of the reasons the Chinese fishermen were captured.

   According to Chinese accounts, the Chinese trawlers had been fishing west of the maritime border between China and North Korea, meaning the captors crossed into Chinese waters to seize the fishing boats and hold them for ransom, which is tantamount to piracy.

   Reports also say there are conflicting accounts whether they were seized by a military gunboat or by pirates.

   The fishermen were given a health check immediately after they arrived in Dalian, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

   The news agency said most of them are in normal physical condition, though some who complained of dizziness and weakness are still hospitalized, according to Pang Hui, president of the hospital where the 28 fishermen had their medical checkups.

   "We were detained at around 1:00 p.m. on May 8 when our boats were sailing and trawling in Chinese waters. I still remember the coordinates of my boat at 123 degrees, 16 minutes east longitude and 38 degrees, 18 minutes north latitude," said Han Qiang, the skipper of one of the three detained boats.

   It is said the two countries share much of the Yellow Sea for their fishing activities. South Korean experts on security affairs said there is no definite maritime border in the Yellow Sea between the two countries, nor has an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) agreement been signed.

   The two countries temporarily have applied a maritime border in the Yellow Sea based on the 1962 Territorial Border Treaty which was signed between then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai.

   This border treaty puts the starting point of the maritime border in the Yellow Sea at 124 degrees 10 minutes and 6 seconds east longitude at the mouth of the Amnok (Yalu) River bordering the two socialist states.

   From this base, the territorial water is applied to 39 degrees 31 minutes and 51 seconds north altitude.

   In the border treaty, the two countries also established waters for free mutual passage between 123 degrees 59 minutes 26 seconds and 124 degrees 26 minutes east longitude.

   According to Chinese media reports, one boat left Liaoning and was seized by the North Koreans around 4:30 a.m. on May 8 when they were fishing in waters 123 degrees 57 minutes east longitude and 38 degrees and five minutes north latitude.

   Based on the treaty, China has observed the temporary maritime border between the two countries as being from 124 degrees east longitude down in a vertical line down to the south in the West Sea.

   Under the circumstances, the Chinese government is known to have advised Chinese fishing boats not to trespass the 124 degrees east longitude line to respect the maritime border.

   This time, the site of disputed waters where Chinese trawlers were seized is closer to the Chinese side than the North's.

   North Korea has its own reasons to refute China's claims. North Korea declared its own EEZ in 1977 which encompasses 200 nautical miles, 15 years after the territorial treaty with China was signed. According to North Korea's EEZ, when the EEZ overlaps with waters claimed by China, the border will be the middle line between the North Korea-proclaimed EEZ and the border observed by China under the 1962 treaty.

   The North is known to have claimed the Chinese fishing boats captured were operating within the boundaries of the North Korea-declared EEZ.

   A South Korean security expert said that North Korea must have opted to take extreme measures this time in order to deter the frequent trespassing by Chinese fishing boats in North Korean territorial waters.

   Another expert pointed out the North should make it clear that it cannot accept the maritime border at 124 degrees east longitude, saying it would lead to a troublesome territorial dispute with China after the Koreas are reunited in the future.

   Another reason behind the North's capture of the Chinese boats and fishermen could be North Korea's rogue soldiers wishing to earn money through a crack down on the Chinese fishing boats.

   The owners of the Chinese fishing boats claimed the crew were taken to the coast of North Hwanghae Province in North Korea. They were kept in a dark room all day and given just two bowls of gruel a day.

   They were beaten with sticks or metal rods if they failed to obey orders, and the food and supplies in their ships were plundered. Just before they were released, the captors erased the navigational records on the GPS devices on the fishing boats, the fishermen said.

   On May 20, the North Korea's foreign ministry said the fishermen were returned with no strings attached. Initially, the captors had demanded a ransom of 900,000 yuan (around 160 million South Korean won) per vessel.

   "That was something that should not happen between the two countries. We understand the complaints of the Chinese people," a North Korean official was quoted as saying by China's Global Times.

   The GPS navigational records of another Chinese fishing boat that was seized but managed to return after paying a ransom apparently played a key role in getting the North Koreans to release the other boats.

   According to the records, the boat had been fishing west of the maritime border between China and North Korea, meaning the captors had crossed into Chinese waters to seize the fishing boats.

   "North Korean troops largely need to survive on their own these days, and some impoverished units may have gone too far in their attempt to earn cash," an official for South Korea's Unification Ministry said.

   China's CCTV said the fishing boats were seized in Chinese waters. But when the North Korean abductors handed a satellite phone to the fishermen to phone their family and tell them they would be freed if the ransom was paid, they said they were already in North Korean waters.

   North Korea normally allows Chinese trawlers to fish in its waters if they pay for a permit license. A Chinese firm has a deal to issue licenses with a company under the North Korean military. Last year, around 700 to 800 licensed Chinese fishing boats caught squid for several months in North Korean parts of the East Sea.

   But there have also been clashes between the North Korean Navy and Chinese fishing trawlers that were operating in North Korean maritime space without licenses. China kept quiet about the incidents for fear of hurting relations with North Korea.

   This time it decided to make the hijacking public because the GPS records showed that the boats did not cross over into North Korean waters.

   The Global Times wrote in an editorial that China should no longer tolerate "any misbehavior by North Korea, and North Korea should respect China's every concrete interest, especially the lives and property of Chinese citizens."