A quicker trip to Seoul – and potential curb on Chinese illegal fishing

South Koreans on Heuksan Island hope a new airport helps keep marine trespassers at bay.
By Lee Jeong-Ho for RFA
2023.11.22

Although more than half a century has passed, Kim Sang-jin still remembers when his family placed doenjang, a soybean paste, outside their home on South Korea’s Heuksan Island to ferment overnight – only to find it gone the next morning.

“That’s how we knew,” Kim said, “North Korean spies had infiltrated the island.”

In the late 1960s, the communist country used Heuksan as a base for espionage operations. South Korean soldiers killed three North Korean infiltrators in 1969, and scenes of gunfire and grenade flashes are etched on Kim’s memory, as is the fear that pervaded the small community about 90 kilometers (60 miles) west of South Korea’s southern coast.

Kim, 80, still lives on Heuksan. His worry now, though, is less about North Korean spies and more about Chinese fishing vessels trolling nearby fisheries. These days, it isn’t doenjang that goes missing but the tools of the commercial fishing trade.

“The Chinese boats drag and remove our nets, causing substantial losses from our end,” Kim said.

South Korea is building a civilian airport on Heuksan Island that could also be used for military operations. Credit: Lee Jeong-Ho/RFA
South Korea is building a civilian airport on Heuksan Island that could also be used for military operations. Credit: Lee Jeong-Ho/RFA

A call for help

When it comes to China’s maritime ambitions, much of the world’s attention has focused on its expansive claims to the South China Sea and the so-called nine-dash line, which critics like the U.S. say contravenes international law. Chinese coast guard ships have blocked fishing boats from Vietnam and the Philippines from areas that those governments say are theirs.

Occasional violent clashes in the Yellow Sea have flared up too, but for the most part China and South Korea have settled on an uneasy truce kept together by limited agreements.

But an eastward push by Chinese commercial fishing boats and naval vessels threatens to change the dynamics on the Yellow Sea, and is fueling a growing sense of unease on Heuksan and islands farther north.

Quicker connections

An airport South Korea plans to start building soon on Heuksan is raising some islanders’ hopes that their government is planning a more robust response.

Its main purpose is to make travel to and from the mainland easier. A trip to Seoul now takes around seven hours by ferry and train; a flight will shorten it to just one. But residents like Kim are also looking to the airport, which will open in 2027, to help the government respond to Chinese fishing boats trying to steal sockeye salmon, mackerel and the other marine bounties from the Yellow Sea.

Although its runway will be too small to accommodate most military aircraft, the airport can support short-takeoff and landing capable C-130s and CN-235s operated by the coast guard. An approval document noted its benefit to maritime patrols.

The airport “has potential to enhance maritime and aerial activities, bolstering military security operations,” former South Korea air force Maj. Park Kyung-ae, who was also a lecturer at the Joint Forces Military University during her service, told RFA.

Fishermen on Heuksan Island are losing nets to Chinese boats, which drag and remove them, says islander Kim Sang-jin.
Fishermen on Heuksan Island are losing nets to Chinese boats, which drag and remove them, says islander Kim Sang-jin.

Stealing the catch

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which both South Korea and China are signatories, grants countries exclusive economic zones up to 200 nautical miles out to sea. But South Korea’s and China’s zones overlap, leaving a measure of ambiguity as to where one country’s territorial rights end and the other’s begin.

Since 2001, Seoul and Beijing have operated under a “provisional measure zone” that delineates where fishing boats from each side are allowed to operate. But South Korea says that China has been lax in enforcing the pact, and its fishing vessels frequently venture far to the east, sometimes entering South Korean waters.

In 2014, South Korea estimated that illegal Chinese fishing had cost the country $1.2 billion. Since then, incursions have continued, as Chinese fishers search out seafood beyond the depleted waters surrounding their country.

South Korea’s coast guard evicted a total of 2,796 Chinese ships in 2017. That number rose to 20,997 in 2020 before tapering off to 1,504 last year, according to data obtained by RFA through South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik. 

China has agreed starting in May 2024 to require fishing vessels from the country to activate automatic identification systems while operating in South Korea’s economic zone. The move, aimed at curbing illegal fishing, was announced by Seoul’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries on Nov. 3.

But a sense of unease lingers among Heuksan residents, whose livelihoods are closely linked to the sea and the “golden fishing grounds” around them. They aren’t convinced the threat of illegal fishing will be completely removed.

Squid dry in the sun on Heuksan Island. Credit: Lee Jeong-Ho/RFA

‘Provocative’ activity

Military considerations overlap with the commercial concerns. Terence Roehrig, who teaches national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Washington, D.C., said the Chinese Communist Party sees the region as an important security zone.

“They view it as an entry point into the Chinese heartland,” he told RFA.

A decade ago, China announced that its territory extends east to 124 degrees longitude, a line based on a 1962 treaty with North Korea that the South never signed onto.

Chinese naval ships have approached the 124-degree line more than 200 times in the past five years, said a source in South Korea’s National Assembly, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the disclosure.

South Korean officials view these actions as Beijing’s attempt to mark the eastern edge of its maritime border – at a point that would give it authority over about 70% of the Yellow Sea. The National Assembly source said the number of Chinese vessels operating near the line has increased since 2013, when China first unilaterally established its so-called area of operations.

RFA contacted China's Foreign Ministry for comment but did not receive a response by presstime.

China also said that South Korea’s navy should not operate west of 124 degrees, a demand the country has ignored as the area is considered international waters and is, for South Korea, a key point from which to monitor North Korea’s naval activities.

In a show of force in September, South Korean, American and Canadian navies took part in a Yellow Sea exercise. Though it was widely viewed to serve as a deterrent to North Korea, which remains South Korea’s biggest security threat, China called the exercise a “provocative military activity.”

A navy ship lies in port at Heuksan Island. Credit: Lee Jeong-Ho/RFA
A navy ship lies in port at Heuksan Island. Credit: Lee Jeong-Ho/RFA

Sinking popularity

Historically, both sides have appeared wary of the risks of escalation, Roehrig said. China may still have hope of drawing South Korea closer to its political sphere. It is “perhaps a bit more reluctant to be overly aggressive, as, I think, it has in comparison to the South China Sea,” he told RFA.

South Korea, meanwhile, has to consider the economic fallout. China is its largest trading partner, eclipsing both the United States and Japan.

The Heuksan airport itself appears to straddle a middle ground – a primarily commercial purpose that can be used for maritime patrols in a pinch.

But the public may press for more. A Pew Research poll this summer found that 77% of South Koreans had a negative view of China, up from around 50% a decade before.

Roehrig said the maritime disputes may be a factor in the decline, a view that’s reflected in interviews with Heuksan residents.

Kim Kuem-hee told RFA that she mostly looks forward to the airport’s construction for convenience’s sake. “Having quick access to Seoul, especially for medical visits, would simplify our lives,” she said.

But, she added: “I hope they can collaborate with the navy to address the issue of Chinese ships in our waters.”

Additional reporting by Lauren Kim. Edited by Elaine Chan and Jim Snyder.

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