May 04, 2010

Events from Around Town: Crabs, Korea and the sinking of the Cheonan

Last week while checking out an event for a CNAS colleague's blog, I couldn’t help but get caught up in some interesting natural security issues I hadn’t heard much of before. The event was a “what if?” over at the Korea Economic Institute, covering the sinking of the 1,200-ton South Korean naval corvette Cheonan and the death of 46 members of its crew. The “what if?” being, what if North Korea was proven to be the cause of the tragedy.

A concern that emerged again and again among panel members surrounded crabbing to the West of the Korean peninsula.

The border dividing the Korean Peninsula extends into the Yellow Sea (the Northern Limit Line) and snakes around a variety of islands, while hugging the coast of the northern land mass—the very area where the Cheonan was ripped in half by an explosion. Needless to say, the border is somewhat difficult to define and adhere to given its somewhat arbitrary nature. What’s more, due to the understandable level of confusion surrounding sovereignty claims along the border, there has been almost no precedent set for the border’s enforcement.

The panel members noted that this territory has been a recurrent source of tension between the two states, especially during the crabbing season, when a legion of both North and South Korean fishermen surge into the Yellow Sea, intermixed with security patrols, no less. The Yellow Sea hosts a large Blue Crab population which not only serves as an important source of food for the famously starved people of North Korea, but also a key trading commodity.

Mounting tensions in the crabbing waters of the Yellow Sea have caused regional concern before, including an incident in 1999, when, according to The New York Times:

A North Korean gunner opened fire on a South Korean boat that was ordered to ram a North Korean vessel. The North had at least 30 men killed in the exchange, and one of its torpedo boats was sunk. Four of its other vessels were damaged. At least five South Korean patrol ships were damaged and nine sailors wounded. . .

The immediate cause of the June confrontation was the concentration of valuable crabs south of the NLL. South Korean authorities allow South Korean crab fishing there only in the month of June. Thus, competition for the crabs was intense.

One of the KEI event’s panel members described incidents such as these, several having resulted in casualties on both sides of the border, as being so tense that he had feared an outbreak of war at the time.

Some may point out that tensions during this prolonged Cold (Crab) War have thus far failed to produce any sort of larger-scale conflict. Regardless, existing tensions such as these could be exacerbated by incidents along the border, such the unexplained explosion that sunk the Cheonan. Even while the international community has been unable to definitively explain the explosion, the people of the South have a very different view. According to the panel members, 80 percent of South Koreans have already made up their mind, having named North Korea as the definitive culprit.

With the crab season already defined by high tensions, countless fishermen, gunboats and a confusing sea border, throwing into the mix potential calls for retribution could bring the Yellow Sea to a boil. Nevertheless, an acute understanding of the complex dynamics that shape the relationship between North and South Korea offer a window into the future security environment in the region. Did I mention that crabbing season is just around the corner?