North and South Korea Fail to Agree on Maritime Border

The long dispute over the Northern Limit Line (NLL) sea border between North and South Korea remains unresolved after a three-day-long meeting, from November 12 through 14, between generals from each country. One of the main goals of the meeting, which took place at the border village of Panmujom, was to establish a joint fishing zone in the area -- an idea that North Korean leader Kim Jong II and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun agreed to during the October inter-Korean Summit as a way to settle the dispute. However, no agreement was reached by the close of the meeting last week.

The NLL was set by the United Nations (UN) in 1953 after North Korea and the UN Military Command could not agree on a sea border. The line divides the mainland portion of Gyeonggi Province and the nearby offshore islands in the Yellow Sea, resulting in the mainland portion becoming part of North Korea while the islands remained under South Korean control. Desiring the islands as well, North Korea has never officially recognized the NLL and claims a more southerly sea boundary that includes the islands within its borders. South Korea, on the other hand, has always officially advocated the demarcation line. Because of the intrinsic differences in these two viewpoints, the NLL has constantly been a source of conflict, as seen by the numerous skirmishes since its inception, including the one in 2002 that resulted in the deaths of six South Korean soldiers.

South Korea's Defense Ministry press release summarizes the need for the joint zone and both side's viewpoints: ". . . South and North Korea shared an understanding on the need for the zone to allow fishermen from both sides to work freely in a designated area of the crab-rich waters along the Northern Limit Line (NLL) . . . But the two sides remain far apart over details including the site of the zone . . . North Korea has proposed that four circled areas south of the NLL be set up as the joint fishing zone. South Korea, however, wants to operate a tiny shared fishing area, which straddles the NLL, on a trial basis. South Korea views North Korea’s demand for the fishing zone to be created south of the NLL as aimed at nullifying the line drawn by the U.S.-led United Nations forces at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War."

North Korea, according to its official news service, has its own view of the situation: "The north side advanced a fair and aboveboard proposal for setting the waters between the maritime boundary . . . The south side, however, set forth a proposal for fixing waters for joint fishing reflecting its intention to set them deep inside the territorial waters of the north side on the basis of the illegal 'northern limit line.' The south side's unreasonable proposal met a strong rebuff from the north side . . . The north side brought to light the injustice of the south side's proposal and vehemently denounced the south side for its improper attitude of persisting in its old stand dating back to the era of confrontation, going against the era of reunification."

Though it appears that no resolution to the issue will be found anytime soon, both sides did agree to discuss the matter in future discussions. Moreover, the inter-Korean meetings were not completely futile, as the two countries did agree on a number of issues that will improve economic ties and improve the relationship between the countries, including making border crossings easier and "allowing South Korean ships to pay in goods, not cash."