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North using Hambak to monitor illegal fishing

Sept 27,2019
The North Korean military has been using the small, uninhabited island of Hambak just north of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea as a foothold for cracking down on illegal Chinese fishing vessels, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Tuesday.

According to the JCS, the North Korean military’s patrol vessels have been frequently spotted on standby in waters near Hambak Island near the NLL, the de facto maritime border, since around 2012.

A JCS official told the Joongang Ilbo, “The North Korean military sometimes even briefly anchored their patrol boat on Hambak Island and rested there.”

At that time, North Koreans were having trouble dealing with illegal Chinese fishermen operating around the Han River estuary, where the mouth of the river meets the Yellow Sea.

From 2012, South and North Korean authorities bolstered their crack down on illegal fishing operations in the Yellow Sea. In turn, Chinese fishing vessels flocked to the neutral inter-Korean border waters of the Han River estuary area during blue crab catching season to avoid the reach of South and North Korean authorities.

The JCS official said, “As Chinese fishing vessels established themselves in the Han River estuary, the North Korean military patrol vessels began frequently sailing to and from Hambak Island.”

There has been territorial controversy over Hambak, but the South Korean Ministry of National Defense at the beginning of this month confirmed that the border island is North Korean territory. The ministry said that some government maps and data had mislabeled Hambak as belonging to South Korea and that the island was the North’s territory under the jurisdiction fixed during the 1953 armistice agreement ending the three-year Korean War.

The United Nations Command (UNC) last Friday also recognized Hambak as North Korean territory.

Under the Korean War Armistice Agreement of July 1953, the Han River estuary extends from the Imjin River estuary to the western Island of Maldo in the Yellow Sea. The NLL starts in waters west of Maldo. The agreement states that the waters of the neutral Han River estuary shall be open to civilian ships of both sides. However, the NLL area has seen high inter-Korean tension, making the movement of civilian vessels in the area difficult.

North Korea began construction of a military facility on Hambak in 2017 and completed it around 2018. Even now, the island is said to be used as a foothold for crackdown of illegal Chinese fishing operations.

South Korea likewise requested cooperation from the UNC in June 2016 to crack down on Chinese fishing vessels illegally operating around the Han River estuary, the first military operation of its kind in that region.

Another JCS official said, “Because of low tide, North Koreans living on islands near Hambak have sometimes walked over to Hambak to collect clams.”

The JCS analyzed the frequency of a radar installed on Hambak Island and determined that it was a Japanese civilian-use model used on vessels for navigation purposes. This came amid reports that North Korea installed a radar on the island with a range which could enable spying on Incheon International Airport and other South Korean western areas.

The North Korean military has also installed high-performance CCTVs, which the JCS official said “is seen to be for the purpose of surveilling military and civilian vessels that enter the NLL in the West Sea.”

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]