Our recent coverage of a fight that broke out between North Korean poachers and Russian border guards is a topic that has caused quite a stir, so we felt the need to consider the wider issue.
How has the situation developed since this incident took place? – Six poachers fishing in the Sea of Japan were detained for two months after attacking Russian border guards. It has been officially confirmed that four Russian border guards were injured, and one of them had to be treated for a gunshot wound! The Russian Investigative Committee has initiated a criminal proceedings under Article 317 of Russia’s Criminal Code for encroachment on the life of an officer of a law-enforcement body.
Law enforcement agencies have even made open requests to recruit more translators: this means that the interrogation is underway and is being carried out openly — their testimony can hardly be denied if it is public.
On September 27, 2019, a representative of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) border control in Primorsky Krai told RIA Novosti that three more schooners and several motorboats were seized, carrying 262 North Korean fishermen, who were arrested for poaching in the Russian Federation’s exclusive economic zone in Primorye. This time, “the North Korean fishermen cooperated when their the vessels were inspected.”
This illegal fishing fleet of several mother-ship schooners and motorboats was clearly no isolated case. It was even larger than the last one (two schooners and 11 motorboats spotted on September 17), but this time the crew did not try to put up a fight.
According to reports from the FSB PR center, the next arrests were made on October 1 and 2. The fishermen were detained in the same territorial waters, the Russian Federation’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan. The arrested fishermen were 64 North Korean citizens on 4 fishing schooners. About six tons of squid, over 600 kg of crab, and three sharks which had all been caught illegally were found on board. The seafood and fishing equipment were seized. The illegal fishermen were taken to Russia’s Far East port of Nakhodka for further questioning to reach a verdict.
Border guards were left with no other choice but to open fire, in order to seize one of the schooners, – “As a result of [their] failure to comply with the border guards’ legitimate demands, gunfire was employed to stop one of the vessels.” This resulted in a fire breaking out in the poaching vessel’s engine compartment, and five North Korean citizens were injured. After that, the crew stopped resisting, the fire was extinguished, the wounded received medical treatment, and the 21 North Korean crew members were evacuated.
On the one hand, these events highlight the need for a solution to be found to the illegal fishing problem, but on the other hand, they prove that Russian border guards are doing their job, and the reason why the incident which took place on September 17 attracted so much attention was actually due to that fact that the level of resistance the poachers put up was more serious than usual.
This situation differs somewhat from how poachers and the North Korean authorities have reacted to Japan’s actions for example, which lodged a diplomatic protest against the DPRK after discovering a North Korean military boat in Japan’s exclusive economic zone at the end of August. According to Kyodo News, Japanese coast guards found a cargo ship and a high-speed vessel flying the North Korean flag in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Both vessels were quick to leave the EEZ, but they were spotted there again the next day. There were three people on board the boat, one of whom aimed a rifle at the Japanese coast guards, while another crew member filmed a video of what was going on.
The North Korean version is different of course: “On August 23 and 24, the patrol boat and ships of Japan Coast Guard were chased out by the self-defensive measures of the DPRK when those made illegal intrusion into our exclusive economic zone. The expulsion of the Japanese ships from our zone is a just and righteous exercise of our sovereign rights. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK sternly alerted Japan through diplomatic channel to the latter’s need to take due steps for heading off any possible reoccurrence of such acts of intruding into our zone and obstructing the activities of our fishing vessels.”
Another incident took place in the Sea of Japan on October 7, 350 km northwest of the Noto Peninsula. A large North Korean fishing vessel collided with a Fisheries Agency patrol boat. The Japanese patrol vessel reportedly spotted the North Korean fishing boat in its exclusive economic zone just before they collided, and the North Koreans were given a warning to leave the area. Then “the North Korean vessel collided with the patrol boat after making a sharp turn.” As a result of the damage, about 20 crew members jumped overboard, abandoning the fishing boat flying the North Korean flag. Japan’s Fisheries Agency and the Japan Coast Guard mobilized several ships and aircraft to investigate the scene and search for the North Korean crew members, and all 60 crew members were rescued and transferred to another North Korean vessel.
The DPRK has since released an angry statement on October 12: in an exclusive interview with Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), spokesperson for the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that their fishing vessel was engaged in normal activities, and although everyone was rescued, the safety of the fishermen’s lives was put under serious threat. “We strongly demand that the Japanese government compensate for the infliction of the material damage by sinking our vessel. Japan is impatiently trying to justify its deliberate act, and it even acts like a guilty party filing the suit first. Yet, they cannot evade from their responsibility for this incident of sinking our vessel and threatening even the safety of its crew. … If such an incident occurs again, Japan will face an undesirable consequence.”
But we should not be led to believe that North Korea is the only country engaged in illegal fishing that might be supported by the authorities. The illegal fishing of Chinese poachers in the waters of the Republic of South Korea is frequently reported, and there was yet another incident on October 12. The Republic of Korea Coast Guard seized two Chinese fishing boats on charges of illegal fishing in its exclusive economic zone in the West Sea. Although they had refused to comply with the coast guard’s order to stop, the 8 Chinese crew members did not resist arrest once the coast guard caught up with them. A total of 18 Chinese vessels have been seized in the West Sea in 2019 so far, and a total of 92 illegal Chinese fishing vessels were seized by South Korean coast guards between January and September 2019.
At the same time, the number of foreign vessels seized by the South Korean Coast Guard for illegal fishing has fallen over the past few years, from 378 in 2015 to 136 in 2018.
On October 14, South Korea and China began a week-long patrol on illegal fishing activities in their joint fishing zone, where accredited fishing vessels from both countries are allowed to fish in accordance with South Korean and Chinese law without having to give the other country prior notice, according to an agreement which they had previously signed.
The South Koreans have not got a perfect record either. On September 20, the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) posted a report on its website identifying countries engaged in illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing. The list included South Korea (for the second time already), whose fishing vessels engaged in illegal fishing in the waters off Antarctica in December 2017, despite the announcement of a ban on fishing in this zone. Seoul and Washington need to reach a compromise within the next two years, otherwise the United States will officially declare South Korea a country engaged in illegal fishing and ban the South Koreans from exporting fishery goods to the United States.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.