By Hong Seong-gul
Selig Harrison, a well-known and leading North Korea expert in the United States, recently contributed to the New York Times an opinion article titled “Drawing a Line in the Water,” in which he proposed the redrawing of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West Sea (or the Yellow Sea) as a prescription for removing a main source of inter-Korean territorial dispute in the region.
Regretfully I found in his article a few, but seriously misleading points regarding the nature of the NLL.
Let me begin my own arguments by reemphasizing on how difficult the tasks of agreeing on the maritime territorial delimitation have been to both Koreas.
For about three decades since the setup of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982, numerous countries have been incessantly experiencing international legal disputes to arrive at agreements over maritime jurisdiction with their neighbors.
The complexity of the maritime delimitation for national jurisdiction between the two Koreas weighs far greater than any other as they are still confronting each other militarily, with the potential of triggering nuclear and missile crises on the peninsula.
At this time, the North raises inter-Korean military tensions, while offering its friendly gesture to the U.S. at the same time.
The NLL issue seems to be in the center of its deceptive stratagem. For this reason, it would be misleading if we interpret recent incidents including the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island ― one of the five islands in the West Sea close to the NLL, known as “Northwest Islands” to the U.S. ― as simply reflecting decade-long conflicts of the two Koreas over the territorial issue.
In his article, Harrison indicated clearly that President Lee Myung-bak rejected the inter-Korean agreement over setting up a joint fishing area in the West Sea, reached at the second South-North summit in 2007, and that it is closely linked with the issue of preventing incidental armed clashes there.
This observation seems to lack sufficient knowledge over the background of why the accord was not implemented.
The joint fishing in the West Sea had already been agreed to in July 2005, at the first round of the Inter-Korean Working-Level Talk on Fishery Cooperation. In the summit held in October 2007, then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reaffirmed the agreement as a way of preventing incidental clashes between their navies in the West Sea.
The problem is that the two Koreas held the Inter-Korean Defense Ministers’ Talks from Nov. 27 to 29 in 2007 to set up follow-up measures, but failed to create detailed agreement.
From Dec. 14 to 15, the two Koreas had another round of related talks, called the Inter-Korean Subcommittee for Agriculture and Fishery Cooperation to discuss the matter.
As a member of the South Korean delegation, I participated in the talks. At this meeting, the joint fishing issue was discussed, but delegations of both sides concluded that fishery cooperation in the East Sea was more feasible, mainly because the East Sea was not intertwined with the NLL dispute.
The key point of this agreement was that South and North Korea could permit the entrance of the South Korean vessels into the northern East Sea, which is in North Korea’s jurisdiction.
Such circumstances led to the failure of joint fishing between the two Koreas, the central agenda in the fishery talks.
Let me go back to the NLL issue. Accurately speaking, there was no military engagement in the waters between the two Koreas at the very moment of signing the armistice in 1953.
The South’s five border islands have never been occupied by the North.
Thus, it was natural that the maritime military demarcation line was not included in the armistice. As Harrison mentioned, the armistice treaty stipulated only land demarcation line. But the NLL should be given credit for playing a significant part of the armistice structure, which has lasted to this day.
While Harrison's point about the NLL being imposed by the United Nations forces without North Korean agreement is well taken, he ignores the fact that North Korea had never raised its formal question over the line, at least until 1977. North Korea declared 12 nautical miles of its territorial sea and 200 nautical miles of its Exclusive Economic Zone in October 1977. It means the North, for decades, recognized the line, while the South had, for the same reason, exerted its effective control over the southern area of the NLL.
Later practices associated with the armistice began formulating based on the arrangement and had sustained for decades.
Furthermore, this legal arrangement was guaranteed by both parties as well. The article 11 in the South-North Basic Agreement concluded in 1991, which includes provisions regarding reconciliation, cooperation, and nonaggression, reads, “The South-North demarcation line and areas for nonaggression shall be identical with the military lines and areas that were defined in the military armistice of July 27, 1953, and that have been under the jurisdiction of each side.”
The article 10 in the Protocol on Non-Aggression also states the maritime nonaggression zones shall be identical with those that have been under the jurisdiction of each side until maritime nonaggression demarcation line is established.
In conclusion, it is impossible to accept Harrison’s proposal that the United States redraw the sea boundary, moving it slightly south.
Moreover, his argument that U.S. President Barack Obama has the authority to redraw the line is oversimplifying the nature of the two Koreas’ problem.
Dr. Hong Seong-gul, a research fellow at the Korea Maritime Institute, is a policy advisor to the government and other public offices on international fisheries.