Conflict with Chinese fishermen in the West/Yellow Sea is not a new phenomenon for Korea, and it is not likely to stop anytime soon. For years, North Korea has sold fishing rights to Chinese fishing vessels in the area, either formally or informally, and many of these boats cross the Northern Limit Line to fish in South Korean waters. This year, North Korea has apparently tripled the number of licenses to Chinese boats, selling fishing rights on the east coast as well, in an attempt to bolster its foreign currency amid ongoing sanctions. During the recent spring season (April-June), the South Korean catch of crabs fell by 70 percent from 2015, thanks in part to illegal Chinese fishing and increased pollution. In June, South Korean fishermen nearly caused an international incident when they captured two Chinese trawlers fishing illegally and towed them to South Korean authorities.
The challenges for South Korea's maritime authorities in dealing with the Chinese fishing vessels are myriad. Seoul is hesitant to aggressively counter Chinese incursions, given its close economic relationship with China and Beijing's tendency to use those ties as leverage to achieve its political and security objectives. Moreover, South Korea wants to encourage China to use its relations with North Korea to influence Pyongyang's behavior. That raises another complication: If Chinese fishing boats flee into North Korean waters — as they have in recent incidents — South Korean maritime security forces would risk a clash with the North in pursuing the vessels. Seoul is concerned that the Chinese fishing vessels will act more boldly, increasing the potential for a confrontation; crab fishing along the maritime border has inspired active shooting battles between North and South Korea in the past.
The artificial reef program, which began in July, is an attempt to build a passive defense system to discourage Chinese fishing vessels from impinging on South Korean waters. The massive metal reef structures are designed to be large and heavy enough to snag the Chinese fishing nets, and some are even reported to be equipped with blades to cut them. Placing these north of the South Korean-occupied islands along the Northern Limit Line has required Seoul to provide naval forces to guard the reef operations and to notify Pyongyang via the United Nations Command of its actions. Pyongyang does not recognize the Northern Limit Line and has countered that the reefs constitute a provocation, violating its sovereignty. From North Korea's perspective, in placing what amounts to a barbed wire fence under water, South Korea has further solidified a maritime border it wants to redraw.
Seoul is taking more active measures as well. South Korea has set up a special coast guard task force to increase patrols in the West/Yellow Sea, primarily to counter Chinese incursions. In addition, the government has urged Beijing to tighten its enforcement on Chinese fishing vessels. China responded by promising to better educate Chinese fishermen of maritime boundaries and proper fishing grounds. But in light of Seoul's decision to allow the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, China may let a few more boats slip by to reiterate its displeasure.
The South Korean reef program is just one of many solutions that the various states along Asia's maritime periphery have devised. Indonesia has stepped up its program of sinking illegal fishing vessels and is pushing to rename a portion of the South China Sea to emphasize its own sovereignty. Manila took its dispute with China to an international tribunal, and it has also offered to engage in bilateral negotiations over fishing rights in contested areas. Several countries are stepping up their maritime patrols, increasing their coast guards, and creating arrangements for cooperative and joint patrols. As coastal fishing stocks continue to decline, illegal fishing in contested waters poses an ever-greater challenge. Though this is causing heightened tension among numerous countries, it also provides an opportunity for nations in the region to come up with cooperative solutions to manage resources that recognize neither borders nor sovereignty.