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Clashes in Korean waters put ties with Beijing at risk

Chinese fishermen, suspected of trespassing, are involved in two bloody incidents.

October 01, 2008|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Two violent clashes in recent days involving Chinese fishermen at work off the Korean peninsula have threatened to roil the diplomatic waters between Beijing and two Asian neighbors, experts say.

South Korean maritime officials have detained 11 Chinese suspected of clubbing to death a South Korean coast guard officer last week as he tried to board their fishing vessel, which was suspected of illegally plying Korean territorial waters.

A North Korean patrol boat fired on another Chinese fishing boat Saturday, wounding the vessel's captain.

Seoul officials have long complained that Chinese fishermen trespass into the rich fishing waters off the peninsula. In the last four years, South Korea has caught more than 1,750 Chinese fishing vessels violating a 2001 fisheries treaty between the two nations, officials say.

The death of the 48-year-old coast guard officer has prompted renewed calls in the South Korean news media for tougher sanctions against Beijing and stronger action against Chinese fishermen caught in Korean waters.

With China in the middle of an autumn holiday, domestic news agencies did not carry reports of either incident. Chinese officials in Seoul declined to comment. But Chinese blogs carried news of the shelling by the North Korean patrol boat.

Analysts say China wants to avoid the impression that its fishermen think they can cast their nets with impunity.

"There is still an undercurrent of suspicion in South Korea toward China despite the China craze that has otherwise gripped the country over the last five years," said Adam Segal, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.

"The Chinese right now don't want an incident with South Korea and will try to deal with the fishing issue diplomatically," he said. "But if Korean nationalists make a big deal out of this, and it gets reported in China, the issue could be volatile. These are dangerous waters."

South Korean media reported that China's ambassador to South Korea, Ning Fukui, had expressed "deep sorrow" over the officer's death.

Analysts in Seoul say the incident may exacerbate the sentiments against China in the short term, but it will not affect long-term relations between the nations.

"A series of incidents this year -- anti-Korean sentiments shown among the Chinese during the Beijing Olympics and melamine-contaminated foods imported from China -- deepened dislikes and suspicions against China among the Koreans," said Lee Chang-hyung, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.

Still, China remains South Korea's largest trade partner, and the South is China's third-largest trade partner, so there is much at stake in dealing with the fisheries tensions, he said.

Coast guard officials say the slain man was one of several South Korean officers trying to board the 17-ton Chinese boat when the fishermen attacked with pipes and shovels. The officer fell into the ocean, and his body was later recovered. Six other officers were injured.

South Korean maritime officials say Chinese fishermen resist capture to avoid stiff fines that can equal more than a year of their salaries. Since 2002, at least 26 South Korean coast guard officers have been injured in clashes with Chinese fishermen, the officials say.

Although coast guard officers carry guns, there are severe restrictions on their use.

On Saturday, the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel was struck by shrapnel from a shell thought to have been fired by a North Korean patrol boat, South Korean maritime officials said. His injuries were not life-threatening.

China is a key ally of communist North Korea, but patrol boats from the impoverished nation have in the past fired on Chinese and South Korean ships in northern waters. But territorial claims are often murky, experts say.

"Often, one country will insist a violation has occurred, and the other says, no, absolutely not," said Jerome Cohen, an adjunct senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "In these cases, nations, including the U.S., frequently lie," he said. "They like to adjust facts if the law is not on their side."


Special correspondent Youkyung Lee in Seoul and Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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