The fishermen of Yeonpyeong Island call it the Golden Sea: a patch of ocean where the blue crabs are fat and plentiful at this time of year. In the Golden Sea, a fisherman can fill his hold with at least two or three tons of crab—worth up to $70,000. But the Golden Sea's riches are hazardous to harvest. The crabs' breeding and feeding grounds are in waters that are claimed by both South and North Korea, and are also filled with warships. South Korean fishermen aren't supposed to cross the so-called Red Limit Line, which runs parallel to the ocean border of North Korea, creating a five-kilometer "no fishing" zone. But sometimes they do: the residents of Yeonpyeong Island consider the Golden Sea to be part of their birthright and they view the Red Limit Line as political claptrap. "It's absolutely meaningless when we are fishing," says Choi Ryul, kneeling near the island's lighthouse to sketch a diagram of the fishing grounds for a visitor. "There are more crabs across the Red Limit Line."
On June 29, the Golden Sea became a battle zone after North Korean patrol boats slipped into the area and engaged three South Korean naval vessels. In the battle that ensued, a North Korean shell hit a South Korean vessel, killing its commanding officer and three other sailors. A fourth crew member is still listed as missing; 19 others were wounded. And those were just the immediate casualties of the fracas. Last week, South Korea President Kim Dae Jung hurriedly sacked his Minister of Defense and reshuffled his Cabinet after a public outcry over the navy's handling of the skirmish. Conservatives have used the battle to accuse Kim of being soft on Pyongyang and to trash the President's Sunshine Policy of North-South dEtente. "The Sunshine Policy used to be a major asset for Kim and his allies," says Moon Chong In, an expert on Korean politics at Yonsei University. "All of a sudden it has become a major liability."
Did a bunch of crabs really spark a naval battle and a political crisis? South Korean media reports suggest fishermen came very close to North Korean waters before the clash, although the fishermen deny it. Neither North nor South has disclosed exactly what happened, and both claim the other side shot first. The North, of course, inflicted the most damage, but considering its strange ways, pinning down a motive is tricky. Some Seoul-based analysts speculate that the North was looking for an excuse to keep a U.S. delegation from coming to Pyongyang for high- level talks—there are plenty of issues the North is loathe to discuss, like its weapons of mass destruction. If so, the ploy worked—Washington withdrew the offer of talks soon after the clash. Meanwhile, the death of four South Korean sailors has made many South Koreans wonder whether Kim's strategy of engaging the North is worth it. Says Seoul businessman Kim Han Suk: "They have nothing to lose. They could do something like this again."
On a clear day you can see the North Korean coast from Yeonpyeong. But an ocean boundary line is hardly as clear cut as the dmz that splits the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang has never officially recognized the U.N.-imposed demarcation line in the sea. Three years ago, a North Korean gunner opened fire on a South Korean ship, triggering an exchange that left at least 30 North Koreans dead and nine South Koreans wounded. That dispute occurred at the height of the crab season. Last week, the South Korean navy changed the rules of engagement, allowing it to react more quickly when they face threats from North Korean vessels. But the dispute over who owns the waters around the Golden Sea remains unchanged. Says Dong Yong Seung, chief of North Korean Research at Samsung Research Institute: "There is always the possibility of another clash."
On Yeonpyeong Island, the locals bristle at suggestions they might have provoked the North Koreans. Tucking into a flatfish he has just carved into strips of sashimi, Choi complains that this year's catch was the worst in a decade—the water wasn't warm enough on the right side of the Red Limit Line. So after paying for crews and equipment, most boat owners will lose money. The entire island depends on blue crab, so everybody is hurting, according to Choi, who is vice president of the local fishermen's association. Until 1968, Seoul allowed them to fish right up to the edge of North Korean territorial waters. The regulations were changed after North Korea kept detaining and in some cases kidnapping fishermen, more than 130 in 1969 alone. That's more politics, says Choi. Their fathers fished the Golden Sea and he doesn't see why it should be any different today: "We went there yesterday," he says, his weather-beaten face wrinkled with indignation. "Why can't we go today?"