By Alastair Gale
A South Korean court handed down a 30-year prison term Thursday to a Chinese fisherman for the killing of a Korean coast guard officer late last year.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Cheng Dawei, a 43-year-old fishing boat skipper, who reportedly confessed to stabbing Cpl. Lee Cheong-ho with a glass shard after an assault team boarded the Chinese vessel on Dec. 12.
The coast guard arrested the captain and eight crew members after they resisted warning calls and the boarding of the ship, which was trawling for fish and crab about 85 kilometers southwest of South Korea’s Socheong Island.
The incident marked the most serious confrontation between Chinese fishing crews and the South Korean coast guard since the drowning death of another coast guard officer in 2008. The captain of the Chinese ship in that case was sentenced to seven years in prison and ten other crew members were given jail terms.
The leaders of China and South Korea held talks a few weeks after last December’s incident and China said it would work to educate its fishermen.
But in an indication of China’s increasing assertiveness over territorial issues and the potential for further clashes at sea, China’s foreign ministry responded to the court ruling Thursday by questioning South Korea’s definition of its maritime boundary.
“The two countries have not demarcated the exclusive economic zones on the Yellow Sea and China does not accept the South Korean application of its law on exclusive economic zones to make such a verdict,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a daily press briefing.
“China will continue to follow closely the development of the case and will provide necessary assistance to Chinese citizens concerned to protect their legitimate rights and interests,” Mr. Liu said.
Following the incident, Seoul said it would beef up the defenses of its coastguard against illegal fishing, including issuing more firearms to officers.
During 2012, the South Korean coast guard said its arrests and detentions of Chinese fishing boats were up about 25% to about 500. In some cases, Chinese fishing crews have lashed their boats together to provide a stronger defense against boarding by coastguard officers.
(This story has been posted on The Wall Street Journal Online’s Korea Real Time Report blog)
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