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The Annals of Kings and Presidents
By Alan Timblick
President of The Seoul Times
Late President Roh Moo-Hyun (keft) meets with the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il at Paekhwawon State Guesthouse in Pyeongyang, North Korea on Oct. 4, 2007 after they signed a joint declaration.

Non-Korean observers of this country may be forgiven for bewilderment at some of the confrontational issues currently preoccupying the political parties. One of these centers on a "who said what?" dispute about a meeting between the two leaders — both since deceased — of North and South Korea. In previous times there would have been no problem.

The Jeoseon Dynasty (1392-1910) kings were circumscribed in their words and deeds by the knowledge that every small detail of court activity, no matter how private or personal, was recorded by official scribes and that the records, sealed and protected against tampering, alteration or destruction, were stored for posterity.

Today we benefit from that tradition by having access to centuries of royal annals, a Unesco-designated cultural heritage, which provide the basis for the realistic and accurate portrayals in TV history dramas.

We no longer have kings in today's democratic Korea but the tradition of keeping records of the activities of the heads of state, our presidents, persists to some degree through the constitutional requirement that records be filed in The National Archives.

It seems to be acknowledged by all that there was discussion between Roh Moo-Hyun and Kim Jong-Il of a long-standing bone of contention between North and South Korea, namely the maritime demarcation line on the west coast of the peninsula, commonly known as the NLL, or northern limit line.

But the substantive content of that discussion eludes analysts on both sides of the South Korean political divide — the ruling Saenuridang and the opposition Democratic Party. The National Archives and what was actually filed therein, are of no help.

Why is this line in the sea so important?

Most readers will know that the two Koreas were separated on liberation from Japanese rule at the end of World War II in1945 along an arbitrary straight line from coast to coast across the peninsula at the 38th latitude parallel.

The line, recognized by both Truman and Stalin was never intended to be anything but temporary and facilitated the surrender of the Japanese to the Russians to the North and to the American forces on the south side of the line. Both states (the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the self-styled Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea (DPRK) were subsequently set up in the respective territories and a status quo lasted till 1950. Then the Korean War (1950-53) changed all this.

Troops from the warring armies crossed the parallel several times as the conflict raged up and down the peninsula. When the fighting stopped and an armistice was agreed a new line, still running from coast to coast but no longer straight and skewed anti-clockwise so that South Korean territory now included a large chunk of land in the north-east while the writ from Pyongyang extended further southwards on the west side to encompass the city of Gaesung and the western coastline all the way up to Nampo, but leaving the capital, Seoul, in southern hands.

Although never established by mutual treaty, this line and a narrow strip of land either side, since known as the demilitarized zone or DMZ constitutes the current land frontier between the states. But the line does not extend westward into the sea, where there are several inhabited islands off the coast.

The only demarcation, not recognized by the DPRK, is the NLL which was defined by the United Nations Military Command. This line runs between the southernmost coast of the DPRK and a string of five islands, all of which lie south of parallel 38 and were never overrun during the war.

Enforcement of the line by the ROK navy means that the DPRK is virtually barred from maritime access to the West sea from its coast all the way up to the Port of Nampo, at the mouth of the Daedong River which flows through Pyongyang. It also obstructs northern fishing fleets' access to the lucrative crab fishing areas.The line has therefore been the scene of naval clashes and artillery fire from Northern mainland positions on one of the South Korean islands, Yeonpyeongdo.

Thus the DPRK has an important stake in any future discussion, while for the ROK the protection of its citizens and sovereign territory is crucial.

Many Koreans are themselves ignorant about the history and precise geography of the NLL and the five islands. Since ignorance can be a dangerous thing, we may long for the days of accurate keeping of annals and wish for better research and record-keeping in the future.

Alan Timblick serves as President of The Seoul Times. He grew up in England, graduated from Oxford University, and has lived in Seoul for over three decades. A former banker, he also worked for the Korean gpvernment as head of Invest Korea and for Seoul City as head of the Seoul Global Center.






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