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South Korea’s Forceful Response to Protect Territorial Waters From China’s ‘Maritime Militia’

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President Yoon pointed out that even North Korea is responding forcefully to illegal Chinese fishing boats.

Chinese fishing fleets have been engaging in illegal fishing to assist the Chinese Navy and Coast Guard in competing with neighboring countries for maritime territories and resources. China’s illegal fishing has been ongoing in the disputed waters with South Korea. Recently, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol demanded that the Korea Coast Guard respond forcefully to safeguard South Korea’s national security.

On April 9, President Yoon boarded one of the Korea Coast Guard’s patrol ships stationed in Incheon, inspecting the situation of illegal operations by Chinese fishing boats during the peak crabbing season.

“The president stressed that the problem of Chinese fishing vessels’ illegal operations should be handled from the perspective of the security of our marine resources,” his office said in a press release.

President Yoon pointed out that even North Korea, which has a military alliance with China, is responding forcefully to illegal Chinese fishing boats. Therefore, the South Korean government is committed to protecting its territorial waters and the livelihoods of South Korean fishermen.

Violent Response

During a crackdown by the Korea Coast Guard, illegal Chinese fishing boats often resist violently. There have been numerous violent conflicts between the two sides, resulting in several casualties in the Korea Coast Guard. In 2016, former South Korean President Park Geun-hye authorized the use of artillery fire against Chinese fishing boats if South Korea found they were acting violently. Until 2019, illegal fishing by Chinese boats noticeably decreased. However, in recent years, there has again been a sharp increase in illegal fishing by Chinese boats.

President Yoon expressed his desire that the Korea Coast Guard should not make any political judgments in the future for fear of backlash from China but focus solely on protecting the safety of the citizens and national interests.

He pledged to introduce special-purpose vessels capable of boarding illegal Chinese fishing boats and to modernize Korea Coast Guard’s security equipment. President Yoon also laid flowers and observed a moment of silence for the late Korea Coast Guard officer Lee Chung-ho, who died in 2011 while intercepting an illegal Chinese fishing boat. 

Crackdowns

During the last week of March, South Korea’s Coast Guard, Navy, and Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries jointly patrolled the waters in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around Jeju Island. As a result, five illegal Chinese fishing boats were seized, one was confiscated, one Chinese captain was detained, five crew members were deported, and another 58 illegal fishing boats were turned around. 

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The Korea Coast Guard revealed that, on average, more than 300 illegal Chinese fishing boats operated in South Korean waters every day in March. However, during this crackdown period, the average decreased to over 140 per day.

South Korea is wary that under the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence, Chinese fishing boats continue to illegally harvest maritime resources while using a “gray zone tactic” to gradually turn the Yellow Sea into its internal waters. 

The term “gray zone tactics” refers to strategies that lie between armed conflict and peace. In other words, it uses provocative but non-military means to achieve its political goals. 

However, in 2013, the CCP unilaterally established the maritime boundary line between the two countries and demanded that the South Korean Navy not cross that line, a demand that South Korea rejected.

The China-drawn maritime boundary line included more than 70 percent of the Yellow Sea within Chinese waters, something South Korea absolutely cannot accept.

‘Maritime Militia’

South Korean Minister of National Defense Shin Won-sik pointed out last year while serving as a member of South Korea’s National Assembly that the losses caused by illegal Chinese fishing boats are not only depleting South Korean maritime resources but also deploying a gray zone tactic to aggressively take over disputed waters. He referred to those illegal fishing boats as China’s “maritime militia,” working in coordination with the China Coast Guard. 

The U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) research shows that the “maritime militia” is a defense organization established by local and provincial governments in China, which requires military approval for operations. Essentially, these forces operate as China’s “Third Sea Force.” 

The “maritime militia” can be divided into two categories: one is a large number of ordinary fishing fleets that occasionally work for the Chinese Navy, while others are full-time maritime militia with better equipment and professionalism, capable of directly executing missions. They serve as the vanguard of the naval auxiliary fleet, with no focus on fishing.

In 2021, Professor Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College said in an article that the CCP uses the maritime militia in gray zone tactical operations to thwart effective responses from other countries. The CCP uses it as a provocative tactic, especially in its controversial sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

The Chinese state media revealed how the regime’s maritime militia operates. A 2018 article on China’s web news portal NetEase said that although China’s maritime militia is not part of the Chinese Navy, it plays a critical role. While ostensibly fishermen, they undergo various military training and are given advanced equipment. They can interact with the China Coast Guard to monitor and report ship positions, gather maritime intelligence, and provide support to the frontline as reinforcements.

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