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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The Northern Limit Line Controversy: New Historical Documents

by | May 28th, 2012 | 07:00 am

We are still digesting all of the conflicting news about the Chinese fishing boat incident, and will offer an overview when some of the dust clears. But one thing is increasingly clear: the Northern Limit Line is implicated in the episode. As Chris Nelson reports from Seoul, Chinese fishing boats have exploited tension along the line in order to exploit the common to the detriment of both North and South Korean crab fishing operations. Nelson reports that Chinese boats hug the DPRK side of the NLL, barely three kilometers from Yeonpyeong Island, effectively keeping the South Korean crab fishing fleet pinned in port for fear of being caught in the middle of an “incident.” But it should also be noted that the North Koreans face similar constraints; moreover, they are at obvious technological disadvantages to both the Chinese and South Korean fleets. You can imagine how tempers might flare.

The North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP), an offshoot of the broader Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center, has published a new dossier of documents on the NLL  For those not familiar with the NKIDP, it has provided a treasure trove of important archival material over the years. Probably the most controversial were the primary documents from the Soviet/Russian archives on the Korean War (a full inventory here), which was the basis for the well-known exchange between Bruce Cumings and Kathryn Weathersby. More recently, they have uncovered material in the Eastern European archives that sheds insight into the continuity in North Korean nuclear ambitions. (In addition to the NKIDP analyses, these documents were parsed by Walter Clemens for The Journal of East Asian Studies.) The publications of the Project take the form not only of document collections but high-quality dossiers and working papers that offer interpretation as well; a full menu can be found here.

Terence Roehrig, a Professor at the Naval War College who has written on the NLL, has pulled together a dossier of 16 documents from 1973-75 that cast at least some light on the origins of controversy.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is a null one; no one has yet to locate the precise document that drew the NLL.  Most authors note that the line was drawn on 30 August 1953 by the UNC but do not cite a specific document; this collection muddies the waters further by noting two contradictory references, one suggesting that it in fact had not been drawn prior to 1961 and perhaps even as late as 1965. (Document 6 ).

The reason for the focus on 1973-75 is that the North Koreans began to challenge the line in October 1973. At the 346th Military Armistice Commission (MAC) meeting in December 1973, the North Koreans first asserted a 12 nautical mile claim for their territorial waters, putting all five of the offshore islands under North Korean sovereignty. Roehrig traces the worries on the part of US military planners about getting dragged into this territorial dispute, but perhaps the most explosive finding of the documents does not get adequate emphasis: the fact that the US doubted the international legality of the South Korean claim that the line reflected a de facto boundary. From the document listed above: “The NLL, however, has no legal basis in international law, nor does it conform along some of its length to even minimal provisions regarding the division of territorial waters. It is binding only on those military forces under the command or operational control of COMNAVFORKOREA.”

We have ample justification for defending the line because of the the aggressive way that the North Koreans have challenged the territorial status quo. But as we have noted repeatedly, the North Koreans love to justify their positions with respect to international law and they have been making this exact same point about the NLL all along; if the North Koreans are reading the NKIDP material—not something they are likely to allow their historians to do—they will no doubt have a field day.