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Coast Guard and Cabinet differ on boat held by North

Nov 02,2017
The Coast Guard said it alerted the Blue House and Navy about the South Korean fishing boat that was held in North Korea for six days last month after crossing the maritime border, sharply contrasting recent remarks from Cabinet members, who claimed they had not known about the incident before Pyongyang officially announced repatriation plans last Friday.

The fishing boat, named 391 Hungjin, was captured by a North Korean patrol boat on Oct. 21, five days after it departed Jeodong Port of Ulleung Island to catch blowfish. One of 10 fishermen admitted to the JoongAng Ilbo during a telephone interview Wednesday that the boat entered North Korean waters on Oct. 18 and stayed there until the North came after them.

The fisherman said his crewmen were aware the boat intruded North Korean territory but did not bother to return to the South because the fish catch was too bountiful to resist.

After several rounds of questioning, Pyongyang said through its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) last Friday that it would send back the South Korean fishing boat and its 10 crew members across the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea later that day on “humanitarian” grounds. Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, National Defense Minister Song Young-moo and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Um Hyun-seong told the National Assembly during recent audit sessions on the central government that they were unaware of the case until the KCNA report.

Maritime police told the JoongAng Ilbo Tuesday they learned the boat went missing after being alerted by a Pohang fisheries communications center at 10:31 p.m. on Oct. 21. The center said it had lost contact with the boat. Forty minutes later, the Coast Guard reported the case to the Navy 1st Fleet, which looks after the East Sea.

The Coast Guard headquarters informed the incident on Oct. 22 at 8:02 a.m. to the Blue House, Prime Minister’s Office, National Intelligence Service, Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, a central disaster and safety management office under the Ministry of Interior and Safety, as well as the Korea Fleet Command in order to ask for assistance in the search.

The Coast Guard said it also sought help from Japan, Russia and China. By then, the marine police had mobilized 20 patrol boats and nine aircraft for the search mission.

“We normally start investigations 36 hours after a boat goes missing from the point it last reports its location,” an official from the Coast Guard said.

The source added it did not know how the military managed the Coast Guard’s alert or by what route it was internally passed on. The fisherman who spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo said none of his crew members were tortured by North Korean authorities or suggested to defect from South Korea, but were repeatedly forced to write testimonies thanking them for their generous treatment, acknowledging the illegal cross into their border and promising never to repeat the aggression.

BY SHIN JIN-HO [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]