China’s next maritime conflict could be with North Korea

This week, the eyes of the world are on arbitrators’ rejection of China’s made-up claims to the South China Sea. Further north, however, Pyongyang’s lease of fishing rights to Beijing threatens to instigate violent brawls between North Korean and Chinese fishermen.

Earlier this year, China stopped accepting imports of North Korean seafood. The reasons for this still aren’t clear, but one possibility arises from a report that much of North Korea’s fishing fleet is controlled by the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which is designated under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270. That designation requires China to prohibit all transactions with any person or entity “owned or controlled” by the RGB. (China continues to allow RGB agents to operate on its territory, catching defectors and keeping overseas workers in line, so its enforcement of this provision isn’t wholly rigorous.)

For a while, this meant that North Koreans found previously scarce seafood dumped in the markets at a steep discount. Later, however, Pyongyang began keeping its smaller fishing boats in port. This was a jarring change from the recent stories of North Korean “ghost ships” washing up on the Japanese coast with dead bodies aboard.

As with so much of what goes on in North Korea, we can only speculate about why this happened. It’s possible that the fishermen had attempted to defect, but because there were no women or children among the dead, it seems more likely that the regime had set unreasonable quotas for the fishermen, who then sailed beyond the range of their fuel supply (historically limited as an anti-defection precaution) in a vain attempt to meet those quotas.

Radio Free Asia reported that the subsequent decision to keep the boats in port was another precaution against defections. Maybe, but maybe Pyongyang simply saw no reason to send the boats out if it couldn’t earn hard currency by doing so. Feeding hungry North Koreans is an insufficient motive, apparently.

Clearly, the last few years have been desperately difficult ones for North Korean fishermen. In their latest turn of misfortune, their government leased the rights to fish off North Korea’s coasts to Chinese fishermen. The big winners appear to be the Chinese. The larger ships of Pyongyang’s state-controlled fleet still operate, while small North Korean fishing boats have lost the most.

On the heels of a new bilateral fishing rights deal, state-run companies in the North are bringing in scores of cutting-edge fishing vessels from China, undermining the livelihoods of ordinary fisherman in the North.

“A fleet of new fishing vessels have emerged in the East Sea waters off of Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province,” a source from the province told Daily NK on July 6. These Chinese ships, outfitted with small refrigerating facilities, state-of-the-art fish-finding equipment, and high-performance GPS and radar systems, are under three-year contracts, which stipulate the entirely of any catch be handed directly over to China in exchange for cash– save the costs of the ship lease.

Such an agreement seemingly bears out claims by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service via a parliamentary committee on June 30 that North Korea sold its fishing rights to China this year to the tune of 30 million USD. [Daily NK]

See also The Joongang Ilbo. In other words, Pyongyang found another way to get Beijing’s money, and Beijing found another way to get Pyongyang’s fish, that Beijing thinks it can defend from U.N. scrutiny. But this has put North Korea’s fishermen in desperate straits. Most of their catch as been sold to China, denying them their livelihoods, yet they’re still expected to meet their steep “loyalty” payment quotas to the state.

The pact has spurred frenetic fishing expeditions by North Korean state companies to amass the highest possible amount of funds. China, on the other hand, “is simply sitting back and collecting on this deal,” the source said.

Therefore, the livelihoods of people living in adjacent fishing villages are on the line, which is of “entirely no concern to the [North Korean] leadership,” the source asserted, adding that while many see the season’s squid catch as their “year’s harvest,” but with their backs against the wall to pay loyalty funds, “state companies couldn’t care less about their troubles.”

These hulking vessels are north of 100 tons, highly mobile, and their operators unsatisfied to confine their expeditions to the deep sea, instead pillaging the shallow, coastal waters as well. Bottom trawling, an environmentally destructive fishing method that drags vast nets across the seabed, is also common.

The fishermen may not dare to challenge the North Korean security forces, but they’re ready to brawl with the Chinese fishermen.

Coupled with the fact that China supplies them with diesel and other fishing instruments, these smaller boats “don’t stand a chance,” the source noted, and “with little in the way of recourse, many [fisherman] are staging armed dissent.”

“Denouncing the vessels as ‘pirate ships,’ people hurl stones at them as soon as they spot them. The anger is so intense, in fact, that many of the [North Korean] fishermen stand guard at the ports armed with clubs to prevent them from docking,” he concluded.

In 2014, Pyongyang also leased China the rights to fish in its waters (including waters that both North and South Korea claimed). That same year, however, the North Korean coast guard seized a Chinese fishing boat, roughed up the members of its crew, and confined it on starvation rations until the captain signed a confession. With North Korea, the fact that you have a deal never quite guarantees peace.

Illegal Chinese fishing has also caused clashes with South Korea, some of them fatal. This has recently become a major diplomatic issue between the two countries.

But aren’t the North Koreans too docile and submissive to engage in violent protests against invited guests of the regime? Not really. North Koreans argue with their own country’s police over economic issues (as opposed to explicitly political ones) more than we tend to assume. Brian Myers has described the North Korean tendency toward childlike, spontaneous rage and offers evidence that the state encourages it (within limits, obviously). In this case, the anger of the fishermen derives from a combination of material desperation and xenophobia — both sentiments we can reasonably believe to be stronger in North Korea than in South Korea.

There are several ways this could end badly for Pyongyang — with violent clashes between North Korean and Chinese fishermen, with violent clashes between North Korean fishermen and North Korean police, or in the long term, by giving China a basis to make expansionist claims to a right to fish in Korean waters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *