'North Korean' fishermen die in a desperate fishery

14 Jan 2016
North Korea’s coastline is 2,100km long. Credit: Uri Tours/CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

North Korea’s coastline is 2,100km long. Credit: Uri Tours/CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

North Korea has made the global press headlines with its claim of detonating a hydrogen bomb, but Menakhem Ben-Yami reports on the fishing boats and bodies that have recently washed ashore in Japan, which appear to be North Korean.

North Korea commands a coastline of some 2,100km (1,550 nautical miles) long. It borders the Korea Bay and the Yellow Sea from the west, where it's quite developed with small bays and islands in the south, and the Sea of Japan to the west. North Korea also claims a 200 mile wide exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Therefore, as far as fishing is concerned, its geography seems to be quite favourable for fisheries and its leader has called for its development.

So far, so good. It seems, however, that something fishy is going on in North Korean fisheries.

Washed ashore
According to a recent report by SAMUDRA, fishing boats carrying decomposed corpses have washed ashore in Japan in recent weeks. One explanation has been that those were dilapidated, rickety North Korean vessels that have strayed dangerously far from port trying to boost the impoverished nation's fish yields.

There has been no mention from secretive North Korea of any missing boats, but its leader, Kim Jong Un, has put a high priority on fishing as a way of earning foreign currency and providing a sustainable food source that is not reliant on harvests and weather.

The Japanese coast guard and police so far have reported 12 incidents of wrecked wooden boats, including some that were in pieces, on the country's shores and waters since October. While most of their crews had been missing, 22 dead bodies, including five skulls were found among the wrecks.

Japanese authorities declined to comment on the origins of the boats or the possible identities of the dead, but a on a video filmed by Japan's NHK Television one could see a hand-written sign that identified one boat as belonging to unit 325 of the North Korean army. Tattered cloth was found aboard one of the vessels which appeared to come from the North Korean flag, the video showed.

Both North Korean defectors and Japanese experts say that these fishing boats, operating under the command of the Korean People's Army may have been forced to follow Kim Jong Un’s demand to catch more fish, but might have encountered rough seas and/or engine breakdown, thus helplessly drifting in the ocean, while their supplies were running out. Those aboard could have died of starvation and exposure to the cold after getting lost.

TV images of some of the boats showed relatively large but otherwise primitive-looking motorised craft and the coast guard said they did not have GPS navigation systems.

Although Japan's Meteorological Agency said there was not unusually bad weather in the Sea of Japan this November, the waters are rougher at that time of year due to the onset of cold, northwesterly winds.

October to February is also prime season for squid, sandfish and king crab off the east coast of the Korean peninsula, and it is not unusual for there to be high numbers of boats at sea, said Kim Do-hoon, a professor of fisheries science at Bukyong National University in Busan.

"Kim Jong Un has been promoting the fisheries, which could explain why there are more fishing boats going out," he said. "But North Korean boats perform really poorly, with bad engines, risking lives to go far to catch more. Sometimes they drift and fishermen starve to death," he said.

Over the years, North Korean boats seeking the rich fishing grounds of the Sea of Japan have washed ashore in Japan as well as on the deserted beaches of the Russian Far East. North Koreans looking to defect, on the other hand, typically flee by land into China, or, less often, via coastal waters to neighboring South Korea.

Vital industry
Fishing is a vital industry in this impoverished country where millions suffer from highly inadequate nutrition. Reportedly, North Korea's 1.2 million-strong army is heavily engaged in food production, including fishing.

"Some of the boats belong to Korean People's Army fishery stations, possibly operating to catch sailfin sandfish," said An Chan-il, who served in the North's army as a junior officer before defecting to South Korea in 1979, and now heads a private think tank on North Korea in Seoul.

"Kim Jong Un is pushing hard to produce more fish. So these boats must have been stranded after overworking," he said.

Kim Jong Un, North Korea's young leader, has made boosting food production a priority for the isolated country since taking office after his father died in late 2011. He recently visited a KPA fishing station on North Korea's east coast, calling for the facility to be upgraded, the official KCNA news agency said.

Modernisation of the station will help it catch more fish, Kim Jong Un said. His direction: “The station should be turned into an up-to-date fishery base, which can be boasted of in the world, thus making our ongoing efforts produce good results for the service persons and civilians," the last report from 25 November said. It appears that so far there's little to boast about.

Lee So-yeon, a North Korean army defector who arrived in Seoul in 2008, said fish products are a key export for North Korea's army, which hires civilian fishermen to make money.

"North Korean army units and security agencies are running many businesses to earn foreign currency from mining gold to catching fish on the west and east coasts," he said.

Lee Jong-won, professor of international relations at Japan's Waseda University, added, "The North is introducing an incentive system for producers. Fish is one of the main export products to China, which can be a way to get foreign currency…There is a possibility this incentive system led people to take more risks."