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Coast Guard may need to be brought back to life

Mar 31,2017
이미지뷰
Coast Guard patrol boats try to intercept a Chinese boat illegally fishing in the sea near Gageo Island in South Jeolla in October 2013. [JOONGANG PHOTO]
In her first national address a month after the April 16, 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy, former President Park Geun-hye tearfully blamed herself and her government for the botched rescue operation, solemnly admitting they hadn’t done their best.

Among 476 passengers on the ferry that left Incheon for the southern resort island of Jeju, mostly Danwon High School juniors on a field trip, only 172 survived, some by disobeying the crew’s order to stay put and jumping into the cold, turbulent sea. The Coast Guard personnel at the scene did little to rescue passengers stuck inside as the ship turned turtle.

Park was swift to blame the 61-year-old maritime safety authority, saying, “If they carried out an active rescue operation immediately after the accident occurred, the loss of lives could have greatly been reduced.”

She claimed the organization “neglected improving rescue capabilities and disaster management,” focusing instead on maritime crime investigations and feeding its hunger for gaining more power.

Her solution was disbanding it.

The Coast Guard’s two primary functions - investigating maritime crimes and rescue operations in conjunction with patrols - were reassigned: the first to the National Police Agency and the second to the soon-to-be-established Ministry of Public Safety and Security.

Korea’s fourth largest government organization, which employed nearly 10,000 people and worked on an annual budget of 1 trillion won ($895 million), was instantly torn apart. The Public Safety and Security Ministry was even headquartered in Sejong City, far from the seas.

Three years after that decision was made, Korean waters are less safe, experts argue. Illegal Chinese fishing boats are running rampant, stealing catches and threatening national border safety. The drug trade and illegal dumping of substances have become difficult - if not impossible - to crack down on, with less manpower on the task.

“No matter who becomes the next president,” said Noh Ho-rae, head of the Korean Association of Maritime Police Science and a professor at Kunsan National University in Gunsan, North Jeolla, “he or she must devise a way to effectively operate the maritime authority, and in turn, the Coast Guard must win back public trust.”

The disbandment of the Coast Guard and reassignment of its duties led to an overall downsizing of the organization. The number of sea crime investigation and intelligence personnel went from 752 in 2014 before the Sewol ferry tragedy to 314 afterward. Busted maritime crime cases plummeted from 50,718 in 2013 to 27,031 in 2015, a drop that proved just how uncontrolled Korean waters have become.

In 2013, there were 8,848 violations of the Fisheries Resources Management Act. In 2015, only 4,585 cases were documented. On drug dealing, 98 people were charged in 114 different cases in 2013, which fell to 38 people charged in 37 cases in 2014.

In 2015, not a single case was caught. “Giving back independence to the Coast Guard enables them to make faster decisions and draw out long-term goals based on their own budget,” said Prof. Noh.

Choi Jeong-ho, a professor of coast guard studies at Korea Maritime and Ocean University, agreed. “Presidential contenders say they would ‘restore’ the Korea Coast Guard, but factually speaking, it should be expressed as normalizing it,” said Prof. Choi. “It’s hard getting work done out in the field without the actual right to command.”

One of the toughest jobs is fending off Chinese boats illegally operating in Korean waters, according to patrol officials interviewed by the JoongAng Ilbo. A total of 3,014 people are on that job, 54 people fewer than in 2014. They control 447,000 square kilometers (172,588 square miles) of Korea’s sea area, which is 4.5 times larger than its land. Seventy-four patrol boats police the waters, meaning each boat looks after a zone nearly 10 times larger than the size of Seoul.

China’s illegal fishing thrives from March to May and October through January, as up to 1,200 boats cross Korea’s border during those periods. Last October, some 40 Chinese vessels were caught fishing in waters southwest of Socheong Island in Incheon, when a 100-ton boat, and then a second similar one, rammed a 4.5-ton Korean patrol speedboat.

Korean officials shot at the Chinese vessels with K1 rifles, K5 pistols and a grenade launcher, at which point the Chinese boats turned and fled. No casualties were reported on the Korean side. Chinese Ambassador to Korea Qiu Guohong was summoned to the Foreign Affairs Ministry for a protest.

“Even if 100 Chinese vessels were to swarm our way, the most we could ever take into custody is three to four, due to a lack of manpower,” said a patrol officer. “We’re supposed to work in triple-shifts, but on busy days, we’re on double shifts, patrolling the seas three to four times a day.”

When the workload gets out of control, he said, maritime officials from other departments are dispatched to help out.

With the presidential election nearly a month away, some of the strongest presidential contenders are vowing to give more authority to maritime officials and restore the Korea Coast Guard. Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party, who boasts the highest approval ratings in election polls, said he would add more patrol staff and expedite response systems to calamities like the Sewol ferry accident.

South Chungcheong Governor An Hee-jung, also from the Democratic Party, said he was “dubious” whether disbanding the Coast Guard had proven to be a wise decision, adding he would give “unconditional authority” to maritime officials and allow them to take control in national disasters.

Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor liberal People’s Party also agreed to reestablish the Coast Guard, as did Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the minor conservative Bareun Party. Yoo, who was recently chosen as the party’s official standard-bearer for the election, said he would restructure the Coast Guard.

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]