Fishing boats as warships
In 2004, China signed a multimillion-dollar fishing license agreement with North Korea that led to a drastic increase in the number of Chinese boats in North Korean waters. But international sanctions imposed in 2017 in response to North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests were meant to squeeze key sources of North Korean revenue.
A long-time benefactor of North Korea, China signed the sanctions after being pressured by the United States, and in August 2017 China’s minister of commerce publicly reiterated his government’s commitment to enforce these new rules.
Seafood remains North Korea’s sixth-biggest export, and in recent speeches the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, has pushed the state-owned seafood industry to increase its haul.
“Fish are like bullets and artillery shells,” an editorial in the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, said in 2017. “Fishing boats are like warships, protecting the people and the motherland.”
In the wake of the U.N. sanctions and as foreign currency reserves have dwindled, the North Korean government has tried to bolster its fishing industry by turning soldiers into fishermen, dispatching these poorly trained seafarers onto notoriously turbulent waters. The sanctions have also intensified North Korea’s gasoline shortage. Japanese investigators say that some of the Korean fishing boats washing onto Japanese beaches suffered from engine failure or simply ran out of fuel.
Since 2013, at least 50 survivors have been rescued from these dilapidated boats, but in interviews with Japanese police, the men rarely say more than that they were stranded at sea and that they want to be returned home to North Korea. Autopsies on the bodies found on these boats usually indicate that the men died of starvation, hypothermia or dehydration.
In 2013, North Korean fishermen were limited by the capacity of their 12-horsepower engines and typically traveled only several dozen miles from land, said a former North Korean fisherman, who defected to South Korea in 2016 and now lives in Seoul.
“Government pressure is greater now, and there are 38-horsepower engines,” said the defector, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions for his family. “People are more desperate and they can go farther from shore.”
But marine researchers say that pressure from the North Korean government is not the only factor.
“Competition from the industrial Chinese trawlers is likely displacing the North Korean fishers, pushing them into neighboring Russian waters,” said Jung-Sam Lee, the scholar whose institute also found that hundreds of North Korean vessels fished illegally in Russian waters in 2018.
In 2017, the Japanese Coast Guard also reported spotting more than 2,000 North Korean fishing boats fishing illegally in their waters. In more than 300 instances, the Japanese Coast Guard used water cannons to force these boats to leave the area.