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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on June 20)

Defense 07:10 June 20, 2019

Lack of vigilance
Time to strengthen maritime surveillance

A growing number of people are asking how a North Korean fishing boat crossed the inter-Korean sea border and reached South Korea's east coast city of Samcheok undetected last week. They wonder what the military and the Coast Guard were doing when the boat was "stealthily" navigating through the South's waters for four days.

In a word, the incident shows that the country's maritime surveillance system has failed to work properly to detect any violation of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas. It also tells an inconvenient truth that there are holes in the surveillance network designed to spot any possible infiltration by enemy forces.

According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the wooden boat carrying four North Koreans started its voyage from North Hamkyong Province, June 9. It crossed the NLL in the East Sea, June 12, and then sailed past Ulleung Island the next day before arriving at Samcheok on Saturday. This means that the boat managed to evade radar and other detection systems while navigating a distance of 130 kilometers after crossing the sea border.

A JCS officer said it was not easy to find slowly moving wooden objects at sea. He noted that there were high waves last week which made it difficult to detect the boat. However, his words sounded just like a lame excuse to justify the military's inability to detect the North Korean boat.

The military and the Coast Guard did not know about the boat until civilians at the port reported it to police. Simply put, the authorities had done nothing to detect the fishing vessel. This is certainly the direct result of lax discipline in the armed forces. So the military cannot avoid criticism for the failure of its surveillance capabilities.

Another problem is that the authorities were allegedly trying to cover this up. The military seemed to distort the facts about the incident by insinuating that the boat drifted into the south and was stranded due to an engine failure. But this was not the case. It even said earlier that the boat was spotted near Samcheok Port; but it actually docked at the port without being noticed by the military or the Coast Guard. After docking, one of the North Koreans asked a South Korean resident if he could use his cellphone to call his aunt who had previously defected to the South.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo belatedly admitted the negligence of the military. He called on commanders to tighten discipline and readiness in the face of mounting criticism for the lack of vigilance. He vowed to take disciplinary action against those responsible for the incident.

Most of all, the Moon Jae-in government should work out radical measures to prevent a recurrence of the surveillance failure. Otherwise, the military has no reason for its existence. No one can overemphasize the importance of a watertight defense and security system.

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