A North Korean fishing boat reported by the South Korean military to have been found near Samcheok Port on Saturday turned out to have been anchored at the port undetected by the military until a local resident raised an alarm. It was a maritime version of the infamous “knock defection” incident, a critical security breach back in 2012 in which a North Korean defector “nonchalantly” crossed the inter-Korean border. This week’s incident is causing huge concern not only because it was clearly attributed to the poor maritime and coastal surveillance, but also because the South Korean military had tried to cover up with a series of reports to downplay and mislead what actually happened. “Whoever was responsible for the lack of discipline will be held accountable,” South Korean National Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said belatedly on Tuesday.
The South Korean military failed to detect the North Korean fishing boat in question while it drifted in the neighboring sea for three days and stopped at Samcheok Port located 130 kilometers south of the Northern Limit Line. The military officials only showed up hurriedly after receiving a report by the local resident. It is truly chilling to imagine what would have happened if it had been infiltration by a North Korean armed force, not a drifting of a fishing boat. Meanwhile, the military went as far as to brazenly lie that there was no issue in the overall maritime and coastal surveillance operations, only to admit its inadequacy and mistakes after testimonies and pictures came out by Samcheok residents.
The explanation provided by the military was far from its report two days ago. In the beginning, it was reported that the fishing boat was found “near Samcheok port,” which sounded like it was found on the sea, in an attempt to hide a clear surveillance failure on the part of the military. What’s more is that those on the fishing boat intended to defect to South Korea, not drifted, say, due to engine failure. The misleading report by the military is raising suspicions of an attempt to hide the defection in consideration of the inter-Korean relations. In addition, unlike the government’s report that the said boat was scrapped under the agreement by its captain, it turned out that the boat has yet to be scrapped. It is inapprehensible what the intention of the inaccurate report was, other than trying to hide a key piece of evidence in identifying the course of the ship sailing south.
The incident was a telltale sign of the poor discipline and security posture of the South Korean military self-pleased in the peace mood following the September 19 Military Agreement between the two Koreas. The failure in surveillance operations itself is an issue, but it is deplorable to see the South Korean military trying not to upset Pyongyang by covering up the truth, which is not so much different from its downplaying the North Korean provocations launching “ballistic missiles.” The public’s distrust in the military cannot help but grow. This week’s incident must serve as a wake-up call to take disciplinary action against those responsible, from security guards and the initial actions taken to the national defense minister and the line of report and command, and reinforce the national security awareness of the overall military in the country.