Crabbing and world peace

Koreas: First naval fight in 46 years threatens diplomatic thaw in the making.

June 16, 1999

AT ONE LEVEL, the naval battle -- in which South Korea sank a North Korean patrol boat and possibly a second while taking minor damage to several vessels -- is easily understood. Crabs.

Juicy, succulent crabs that are harvested only during a few weeks in June fetch $17.60 apiece in Seoul. North Korean fishermen sell them for more in Japan. North Korea is starving for hard currency as well as food. The waters are on the southern side of a U.S.-proclaimed 1953 buffer zone, but within 12 miles of both Koreas and legitimately disputed.

At another level, North Korea has been slipping spies and saboteurs into South Korea by sea since the 1960s. South Korea's patrolling has caught some infiltrators, but constant vigilance is needed.

Deeper down, the incident also bore some relation to the paranoia or scheming of North Korea's reclusive Communist leadership while its people starve.

Here is how Radio Pyongyang described it: "The People's Navy, under the heroic leadership of Comrade Kim Jong Il, is destroying the South Korean navy in the Western Sea. This is the result of the more than 185 visits that our Dear Leader made to the naval bases to instruct them." Did the dictator plan this aggression? His propaganda claims so.

This incident delayed a shipment on 200,000 tons of southern fertilizer promised to the north in return for visiting rights for families separated since 1950. A further ministerial meeting on this between the two Koreas is scheduled for Monday in Beijing. Perhaps it is contact and understanding that the Dear Leader fears most.

That the meeting will be held in Beijing is significant. China has responsibly brokered an accord between the two Koreas, aiding North Korea with grain and coal and trying to calm both sides in this incident.

All the more reason for Washington to keep clear understandings with Beijing. The United States worked Russia into brokering its ultimatums to Serbia and needs Beijing to deal with North Korea.

China wants peace and accommodation between the two Koreas. So does the United States. The two superpowers mutually want no crab war with nuclear potential roiling the Yellow Sea.

Pub Date: 6/16/99

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