North Korea yesterday seized a stray South Korean fishing boat and its four crew members, ratcheting up tensions after a week of aggressive saber-rattling from the communist regime.
South Korea called for the immediate return of the crew and their 29-tonne squid fishing vessel 800 Yeonan, but there was no sign that the North was moving to release them, Seoul’s military and the unification ministry said.
The seizure of the boat follows threats by Pyongyang to retaliate against sanctions imposed after recent nuclear and missile tests and a warning of “all-out war” ahead of US-South Korean military drills next month.
The 800 Yeonan was towed by a North Korean patrol boat after it strayed into the North’s waters at 6:27am yesterday, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff office said.
The South’s boat was presumed to have sailed off course owing to a faulty global positioning system and was being taken toward the North’s eastern port of Jangjon, it said.
“We immediately radioed to the North Korean navy, requesting the return of the stray South Korean fishing boat, but there was no response,” a spokesman at the office said.
The unification ministry also demanded that the boat and its crew be returned “as soon as possible” in a phone message to the North, spokesman Chun Hae-sung told reporters at a briefing.
“The North confirmed its reception of the message, saying it would check things out and get back to us,” another ministry official said.
Despite Pyongyang’s recently bellicose rhetoric, the rival Koreas do have a record of returning fishing boats that venture onto the wrong side of the border.
Two South Korean fishing boats — one in April 2005 and the other in December 2006 — accidentally strayed into North Korean waters, but were soon repatriated. Two North Korean boats were also promptly returned earlier this year.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have soared following the communist state’s missile and nuclear tests, which resulted in tougher UN sanctions and a renewed standoff with the US.
North Korea’s defense minister warned of “all-out war” at the weekend, ahead of the Aug. 17 to Aug. 27 Ulchi Freedom Guardian annual exercise between the US and South Korean militaries.
The drill “lays bare the black-hearted aim lurking behind ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘dialogue,’” the North’s Korean Central News Agency said.
Relations have deteriorated since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office last year, promising a tougher stance toward the North.
Pyongyang quit six-party talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program after the UN Security Council censured it for a long-range rocket launch in April. The North’s second nuclear test followed a month later.
The Security Council has since imposed tougher sanctions.
The US has urged the international community to continue to pressure North Korea to return to the six-party talks — made up of the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia.
However, North Korea, declaring the multilateral talks “dead,” this week reaffirmed its demand to deal with the US directly. Despite Washington’s categorical rejection of that bilateral approach, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday voiced support for North Korea’s call.
“While I believe the six-party talks still can provide a good way for solution through dialogue, if necessary there should be some other form of dialogue,” Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, told a press conference.