On 17 September 2019, the Federal Security Service (FSS) of the Russian Federation reported that more than 80 DPRK citizens, engaged in poaching in Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Sea of Japan, were detained. Coast guards apprehended two fishing schooners, with 21 people on board one of them and 45 on the other. According to FSS, the crew of the second schooner attacked members of the boarding team from Russia’s border patrol vessel. As a result, three coast guards suffered injuries of various severity, and one of them was shot with a firearm. The border guards confiscated prohibited fishing gear and the illegal catch from the apprehended vessels.
On 18 September, the FSS of Russia released a video from the scene of the incident. It shows the inspection of one of the detained schooners, the interception of a motor boat and coast guards having to use their flare gun. The FSS also stated that some poachers were injured too.
This news item attracted the attention of not only the author of this article but also other media for three reasons. Firstly, although confrontations do occur during inspections of poacher vessels and at times people sustain injuries, this time around, rumors began circulating immediately afterwards that neither boat hooks nor other equipment had been used during the incident; instead an armed fight had broken out.
Secondly, for the first time, there are mass media reports about a confrontation with poachers from the DPRK and not from either China or South Korea. And poaching does remain an issue along Russia’s maritime boundaries. In 2018, the Coast Guard of the Border Service reported more than 8,000 infractions; detained 39 Russian and foreign ships and 1,037 small vessels, and confiscated 27 of them.
Thirdly, the scale of the operation is unusual. After all, in the end, approximately 160 individuals were detained. A crew of more than 40 people on a vessel may be indicative of facilities for the first step of fish processing on board of the ship.
At present, the apprehended North Koreans are in the port city of Nakhodka, while the injured coast guards are being treated in a military hospital in Vladivostok, and their lives are no longer in any danger. The poachers are to be questioned in the presence of a staff member from DPRK’s Consulate-General.
As expected, global and Russian anti-Pyongyang media outlets publicized the story as widely as possible and presented North Korea in an unfavorable light, which is why many fictitious elements had been added to it.
According to these articles, the confrontation took place in Russia’s territorial waters and not in its Exclusive Economic Zone despite the fact that other media outlets reported the exact location of the incident, i.e. the Kita-Yamato Bank in the Sea of Japan. But then again, incompetent journalists often confuse the two terms.
It turns out, there have been similar incidents over the years. The fact is that, in accordance with International Maritime Codes and Conventions, a vessel has the right to enter any territorial waters when seeking shelter from a storm. Under this pretext, 250 to 300 North Korean schooners have entered Russian territorial waters and then engaged in poaching using driftnets, which are prohibited in Russia. RIA Vostok Media reported that during a recent typhoon, North Korean fishermen felt free to do whatever they wanted. According to videos posted on social networking sites, they openly fished in coastal areas and even shopped for food.
Naturally, poachers often claim to be victims of hunger and spread false information about the economic situation in their country in order to present themselves in a positive light (just as professional beggars do when attempting to appeal to our sense of compassion).
Russia’s central as well as regional authorities are aware of this problem and are taking measures to resolve it. As far back as 19 August 2019, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the DPRK Alexander Matsegora met with DPRK’s Vice Minister of Fisheries Kim Chang Do, ahead of the latter’s trip to Moscow for the 31st session of the DPRK-Russia interdisciplinary committee for cooperation in the finishing sector. During the discussion, Russia’s Ambassador emphasized the need to take urgent measures that would put an end to the recently widely-publicized incidents involving North Korean poachers who had violated fishing norms and rules in Russia’s territorial waters. In support of his statements, Alexander Matsegora provided some factual information, and in response, his North Korean counterpart assured the Ambassador that the DPRK was prepared to take decisive action to rectify the situation. Hence, stories by a number of observers attempting to portray Russian authorities as ineffective (as if they had only recently learned about such issues) are simply untrue.
Immediately after the latest incident, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation expressed their serious concern about this armed attack on Russian coast guards by North Korean sailors to the chargé d’affaires ad interim of the DPRK in Moscow Pyongyang was urged to take comprehensive measures in order to prevent such incidents in the future.
On 23 September, a working meeting between North Korean and Russian diplomats took place at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. The two sides discussed the recent incident involving North Korean fishermen in Russia’s territorial waters in the East Sea. On the same day, the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Igor Morgulov, informed the chargé d’affaires ad interim of the DPRK in Russia, Zin Chzhon Hep, about the death of a North Korean fisherman during the interception of the poachers’ vessels. The Russian side requested that comprehensive measures be taken to prevent such incidents in the future.
Some experts have thus posed the following question: “To what extent will the incident affect the relationship between the two countries?”. Well, the answer is simple: “There will not be any effect.” This was an equally unpleasant but manageable situation to the one involving a recent interception of a Russian vessel by North Korea.
The relations between the two countries are not expected to worsen. On the contrary, it is highly likely that this incident would prod the two sides to jointly tackle this problem. Pyongyang values its relationship with Moscow and there is impetus for North Korean authorities to punish their compatriots. Moreover, the Russian Federation has an extradition treaty with the DPRK.
As for the detainees, they will most likely be deported back to North Korea, where punishments for such crimes are far more severe. After all, there they may be charged not with poaching but with an attack on government authorities, an offence that is taken far more seriously in the DPRK. But then again, Russian military may decide that it will be better to punish the poachers in Russia, because it will be hard to find out what happens to them once they are handed over to North Korean authorities. After all, any punishment on the territory of the Russian Federation will be unavoidable and cannot be concealed. From the author’s point of view, poaching must not be tolerated irrespective of where the perpetrators come from.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.