[INTERVIEW] Oceans minister wary of growing reliance on foreign sailors

Bomi Yoon

Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Cho Seung-hwan / Courtesy of Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries

Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Cho Seung-hwan / Courtesy of Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries

Seafood safety will remain top priority among 2024 maritime policies

By Park Jae-hyuk

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries has unintentionally drawn huge public attention throughout this year as it was tasked with promoting the safety of domestic seafood after Japan began to release treated radioactive wastewater into the ocean in August from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

With a promise to continue pan-governmental efforts next year to dispel worries among consumers, Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Cho Seung-hwan told The Korea Times in a recent interview that one of the ministry’s biggest achievements so far was the successful prevention of a decrease in seafood consumption.

However, the treated wastewater from Fukushima was not the ministry’s only concern this year.

Amid a worsening shortage of young Korean workers in various sectors, the ministry has also gone all out to solve the problem of crew shortages in the domestic shipping and fishing industries.

“Immediately after I took office in May last year, our ministry prioritized taking countermeasures against a shortage of sailors,” said Cho, who is supposed to hand over his position to a successor before the end of the year.

Just like employers in other industries, shipowners in Korea have increased their dependence on foreign workers to counter the labor shortage. The ministry’s data showed that the number of foreign sailors rose to 28,281 in 2022 from 17,558 in 2010 and 9,916 in 2007.

Cho admitted the necessity of foreign sailors and fishermen, as well as measures to protect their basic human rights, but emphasized at the same time that the Korean shipping industry cannot rely entirely on migrant workers.

“Given that ships transport 99.7 percent of Korea’s trading volume, it is important to nurture sailors of Korean nationality from the perspective of the economy and national security,” he said.

From that standpoint, the government announced in July that it would improve the working conditions of Korean sailors by allowing more holidays and offering tax benefits.

“For the first time in 15 years, the government enabled employers to allow sailors to work on ships for shorter periods of time and take longer paid holidays,” the minister said. “As a result of our ministry’s constant efforts to convince the finance ministry, sailors on ships going abroad will be able to enjoy larger tax benefits for the first time in 10 years.”

For foreign sailors, he vowed continuous discussions with human rights activists, labor and management and other relevant institutions, saying that the government took various measures to protect their basic human rights, such as raising the minimum wage and banning employers from confiscating foreign workers’ identification documents.

Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Cho Seung-hwan, center, poses with Korea Shipowners' Association Chairman Chung Tae-soon, left, and Federation of Korean Seafarers’ Unions President Park Seong-yong, after signing an agreement to improve the working conditions of Korean sailors at the association's headquarters in Seoul in this Nov. 6 file photo. Yonhap

Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Cho Seung-hwan, center, poses with Korea Shipowners’ Association Chairman Chung Tae-soon, left, and Federation of Korean Seafarers’ Unions President Park Seong-yong, after signing an agreement to improve the working conditions of Korean sailors at the association’s headquarters in Seoul in this Nov. 6 file photo. Yonhap

Plans to rebuild Busan

Although the 57-year-old will soon leave the ministry he has worked for since 2003, he stressed that efforts to stabilize seafood consumption and boost exports will be the top priorities in next year’s maritime policies, regardless of an ongoing Cabinet reshuffle.

“Our ministry will push ahead with policies for all consumers to enjoy domestic seafood without safety concerns,” Cho said. “We will also build the world’s leading logistics and port infrastructure to increase trade-reliant Korea’s exports.”

In particular, 12 large container ships will start operations next year for exports to the Americas and Europe. In addition, a terminal featuring Korea’s first fully automated logistics service will open in Busan New Port in March, as part of the government’s plan to establish smart mega-ports nationwide.

The minister, who is expected to run for a National Assembly seat representing his birthplace of Busan, also said the redevelopment of Busan North Port will proceed as planned, despite the city’s failure to win the honor of hosting World Expo 2030.

“The project’s first stage is intended to transform the old pier into a marine tourist attraction that includes an international gateway and waterfront spaces,” he said. “The second stage will be a project to revitalize the old downtown area by promoting international exchanges, financial services and R&D.”

International cooperation

Under Cho’s leadership, the ministry enabled Korea to join the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) top council for the 12th consecutive time in November and contributed to the organization’s adoption of a revised strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping in July.

“The IMO’s main concern at this moment is a paradigm shift caused by decarbonization and digitalization, so our ministry will try to lead international discussions on major topics and make the organization accept our requests when revising its conventions,” the minister said.

In contrast to concerns over Korea’s diplomatic relations with China, he said that maritime cooperation between the two countries showed progress.

“After China lifted restrictions on group tours in August, cruise ships from China made over 40 entries to Korean ports and the number is expected to exceed 150 next year,” said Cho, who attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in October. “We have also reinforced our support for the export of seafood for the Chinese market by establishing cold chain infrastructure in the country’s inland areas and developing new products that suit the tastes of Chinese consumers.”

Leave a Comment