By now, you’ve probably seen the ghastly reports of boats from North Korea washing up against the Japanese coastline with the desiccated or skeletal remains of their crews. You’ve probably also read reports speculating about why. This post will sift through dozens of those reports, discard the theories that the evidence refutes, and assemble the more plausible ones into a coherent explanation that the evidence supports. As it turns out, most of what you’ve read about North Korea’s ghost ships is only half right, and much of it is at least half wrong.
In 2015, there was just one survivor among the boats and bodies washing up along Japan’s coast; in 2014, there were four. By comparison, authorities found 27 bodies in 2015 and 11 bodies in 2016. There are more survivors this year. In early December, The Guardian reported that the 64 North Korean boats that drifted to Japan in 2017 contained 42 survivors and 18 bodies. Of those 64 boats, 33 arrived between the beginning of November and December 5th. By December 18th, that number had risen to 95 boats and 27 bodies. Ten days later, it was 103 boats and 35 bodies. Most arrived in the last two months of this year. As horrible as this looks — and be warned, it’s horrible and graphic — it’s probably even worse than that.
Maritime experts speculate that for every North Korean boat that reaches dry land in Japan, there may be many more still lost and drifting at sea and the death toll among North Korean fishermen may in fact be much higher. Something must be terribly wrong in North Korea, to make a fisherman’s catch one worth dying for. [CNN]
North Korea’s government doesn’t even claim the remains. Instead, Japanese authorities keep DNA samples. Then, monks bury the unnamed dead in a common grave overlooking the sea.
Over the weekend, the city of Oga cremated the bodies. The coast guard is keeping fingernails and toenails for DNA identification in case family members come forward. In past cases, the Japanese Red Cross has helped to return remains to North Korea.
For now, the ashes of the eight are stored in unmarked white boxes that sit on a table at the back of the main hall in Tousenji, a Zen temple in Oga.
Ryosen Kojima, 62, Tousenji’s priest, said the temple would keep the ashes indefinitely. If they are not claimed, they will eventually be buried in a grave for unknown souls in the temple’s back garden.
“They are humans just like us,” said Kojima, who said the temple usually takes in two or three sets of anonymous remains of North Korean fishermen a year. “But they have no one to look after their ashes.”
“Since they were born into this world,” he said, “they must have parents and families. I feel so sorry for them.” [Asahi Shimbun]
North Korean ships began washing up along Japan’s coast as early as 2013, when 80 boats drifted ashore. I wasn’t able to determine how long the ships would have been at sea, except that one crew survived “weeks adrift on heavy seas.” The boats whose crews died were probably at sea for months.
Some Japanese wonder whether these men might be spies, smugglers, or abduction squads. But if this is North Korea’s way of sending trained spies to Japan, the attrition rate seems prohibitively high. I’ve seen no evidence that any of the castaways were identified as spies or behaved as such. None appear to have set sail with the intent to defect. Although there have been defections in the Sea of Japan recently, they’re still relatively rare. In 2011, nine defectors — three men, three women, and three children — sailed all the way to Japan. Last June, a North Korean scientist and his family obtained a boat and enough fuel to carry them to South Korea (source article in Korean). In December, the South Korean Coast Guard rescued two defectors from a small boat off the east coast. Those found aboard the ghost ships are overwhelmingly adult males. Presumably, anyone intending to defect would bring enough provisions to survive a long sea journey.
The fishing waters are also rich, and an obvious draw for fishermen. Japan’s Coast Guard has caught North Korean boats fishing the Yamato Bank within its exclusive economic zone on hundreds of occasions. Japanese fishermen say the waters are increasingly overfished, and their livelihoods are at risk. No matter how good the fishing, only great desperation or state fiat could drive North Korea’s fishermen to risk slow death at sea in their rickety, underpowered little boats with no GPS navigation systems. The fishermen certainly know the risks. Jiro Ishimaru, the journalist who brought us Rimjin-gang, tells the Asahi Shimbun that some fishing villages along North Korea’s east coast are called “widows’ villages” for this reason. This one is near Shinpo, in South Hamgyeong Province.
Another theory advanced is that the crews are not fishermen at all, but inexperienced soldiers sent out to sea. Interviews with survivors may eventually validate that theory, but for now, most of the victims are probably just who they seem to be — fishermen. None were armed, and all behaved just like I’d expect impoverished and isolated people from an anarchic place to behave after being washed arose in a forbidden paradise. For example, three of ten crew members who recently survived an accidental voyage from Chongjin to Hokkaido took shelter in some vacant fishing cabins. Then, they looted them of their solar panels, a generator, and some electrical appliances. When the Japanese police came, they tried to sail away, but were caught and arrested. The men were 45, 32 and 59 years old — too old to be expendable conscripts.
Most news articles speculate that the North Korean fishermen fell into distress due to unfavorable winds, lack of fuel, or mechanical trouble. These factors probably contributed to the problem, but they aren’t new developments and didn’t catch the crews off-guard. The men who crew these boats, such as the one that lost its steering, must know the limits of their seaworthiness.
“Only an idiot would fish this way,” says Akira Funatsu, a 76-year-old veteran Japanese fisherman. [CNN]
The boats are obviously much too small to cross a sea. They’re also clearly in terrible shape, even if one discounts the effects of months at sea without maintenance. This also fits with the dilapidated state of North Korea’s infrastructure generally. The crews surely knew this both before and after 2013.
Lack of fuel seems like a logical explanation at first. Fuel prices spiked in the spring due to sanctions, but 2017 fuel sanctions still wouldn’t explain 2013 or 2015 ghost ships. Furthermore, by September — just before the last wave of ghost ships would have sailed — fuel prices had begun to fall back to more normal levels. (Update: But see this by Thomas Byrne of the Korea Society, indicating that fuel prices well above historical levels despite the recent easing of prices.) Fuel prices may be one factor, but they don’t explain why ghost ships drifted onto the Japanese coast before prices spiked, or after they fell. Regardless of the price of fuel, the boats were still going to sea. Their skippers wouldn’t have left port if they knew they couldn’t make it home.
The Tides and Winds
The tides in the Yellow Sea, off Korea’s west coast, are among the world’s highest. By contrast, there are almost no tides in the Sea of Japan.* But as it turns out, the winter tends to bring strong winds in that area. An official from the Japanese Coast Guard interviewed by CNN and a professor interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun confirm that although the Sea of Japan is calm in the summer, around late October or November, as winter sets in, the winds pick up, the sea becomes rough and stormy, and there are more shipwrecks.
I searched online to see if someone kept an online archive of global weather patterns, because of course they do — the internet has everything. My research led me to a wonderful site called earth.net. And sure enough, starting in November, there were two bands of strong wind along North Korea’s east coast, blowing hard out to sea over Wonsan in the south and Chongjin in the north. The winds picked up speed as they descended from the mountains and blew either southeast to sea or northeast toward Hokkaido, sometimes faster than 60 kilometers an hour (our National Weather Service defines any wind more than 63 kilometers an hour as “gale force.”) Here’s a picture of the wind on the night of November 10th. That storm over the La Perouse Strait, at the northern entrance to the Sea of Japan, is blowing at more than 100 kilometers an hour. It’s just gale force off the coast of Chongjin, pulling any nearby boats out to sea.
After slowing down for a few days, the winds picked up again by the 17th, and again on the 23rd. On the morning of the 25th, the winds off Chongjin are doing more than 70. Meanwhile, a quiet vortex formed off the west coast of Japan, pulling in any boats blown away from the Korean coast. Watch this pattern.
By that afternoon, that vortex was gone, and the winds were blowing hard toward the east and sweeping everything on the sea into northern Honshu and Southern Hokkaido.
This pattern — a hard east wind off Korea and mid-sea calm, then a hard east wind over the mid-sea blowing toward Japan, repeated itself several times throughout late November and December.
These fierce wind patterns would explain why so many North Korean boats blew up against the Japanese coast around that time. Pyongyang’s failure to provide essential state services would also have contributed to the disaster. I found no evidence online of any such thing as a North Korean coast guard, although one sees many small patrol boats along North Korea’s east coast on Google maps.
North Korea’s navy is in a poor state of maintenance and repair, except for its submarines, helicopter frigates, and some patrol vessels designed for anti-ship duties. At least one of the ghost ships had a radio transceiver, but with no effective coast guard, who would send a weather alert or dispatch a rescue boat if a fishing boat sent a distress signal?
Blame It on Sanctions?
Why might North Korean boats have begun venturing further out recently, despite the wind patterns that the fishermen must have known about? Unfortunately, one finds speculation in greater supply than explanation:
Many analysts think a recent increase in North Korean “ghost ships” washing ashore in Japan is a reflection of food shortages, which in turn are a result of tougher sanctions imposed to punish the regime for its continued nuclear defiance. [Washington Post]
This theory doesn’t hold up to basic scrutiny. There isn’t any evidence that food was in significantly shorter supply between September and November than it typically is in North Korea. Food prices rose in the spring, but that happens every year after winter stocks run out and before the summer crops come in. Rice prices, which the Daily NK tracks online, stabilized in the summer. By September, before the latest group of ghost ships would have sailed, prices of rice, corn, and pork were actually declining.
A persistent complaint of mine has been that journalists, and the “many analysts” they quote, don’t seem to understand the sanctions they opine on. The period when the first ghost ships left North Korea, between 2013 and 2015, coincides with a period during which U.S. and U.N. sanctions were largely unenforced and had few apparent effects, as I’ve documented again and again and again (page 20). The North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act didn’t pass until February 2016, wasn’t implemented by executive order until March 2016, and wasn’t seriously enforced until mid-2017. The U.S. and U.N. never sanctioned North Korea’s fishing industry until the KIMS Act passed in 2017 — and even then, they only sanctioned North Korea’s seafood exports. The same week that President Trump signed the KIMS Act, the U.N. also banned North Korea’s seafood exports in UNSCR 2371. UNSCR 2397 later clarified that the seafood export ban also includes the North Korean government’s sale of fishing rights, which is a topic we’ll turn to later in this post.
A similar line of speculation is that “Pyongyang is pushing its fishermen to new extremes to try to stave off potential food shortages as the U.S. leads efforts to squeeze the Kim Jong Un regime in a standoff over its nuclear program.” This theory doesn’t hold up, either. If you want to maintain your food supply through a hard spell, decimating your littoral fishing fleet, exporting your fish stocks, and overfishing — which has become a serious problem for North Korea — aren’t sustainable strategies for that.
Most importantly, there’s more evidence that sanctions have driven seafood prices in North Korean markets down than up, because reducing exports increases domestic supplies. In October, prices of fish in Yanji, China were high because of reduced imports from North Korea due to sanctions — or more likely, a temporary feint at sanctions compliance that no one on either side of the border expected to last long. High prices in China might be tempting to North Korean smugglers — more on that later — except that the Sea of Japan is on the wrong side of Korea to reach any Chinese ports.
If North Korea exported fewer fish to China, one would expect sellers to dump some of their merchandise in North Korea’s markets. That’s not just my speculation, it’s exactly what happened in 2016, when China again temporarily over-enforced sanctions by barring North Korean ships from its ports, including ships carrying North Korean seafood to China in exchange for hard currency for the state. The result actually had North Korean consumers cheering for sanctions:
“These days items that were previously hard to find because they were earmarked for export are suddenly emerging at the markets,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “The price haven’t gone down enough yet, so you don’t see too many people actually buying them. But you do see flocks of curious people coming out to the markets to see all the delicacies for sale.”
She added, “High-end marine goods like roe, sea urchin eggs, hairy crab, and jumbo shrimp and produce like pine nuts, bracken, and salted pine mushrooms were once considered to be strictly for export, but now they’re easy to find. The number of such products, referred to as ‘sent back goods,’ at Sunam Market and other markets around Chongjin is growing by the day.”
Additional sources in both North and South Hwanghae Provinces reported the same developments in those regions. [….]
Unlike in the past, when they had to pick out the high-end fisheries goods only to hand over to state foreign-currency earning enterprises, now they can sell the entire load to wholesale merchants.
“People are getting their hopes up, saying they might be able to eat some of the highest quality fish for a cheap price, if the UN sanctions continue to carry weight until the summer,” she explained. “They’re actually welcoming the sanctions now saying that for average people they’re bringing good fortune since the number of goods they can get their hands on are continually on the rise.” [Daily NK]
On a previous occasion, in October 2015, the regime itself briefly banned seafood exports to China for unknown reasons. Again, halting exports increased the domestic supply of seafood in North Korea’s markets, at the cost of removing a major source of “loyalty funds” for the regime while the ban lasted. In November, journalist Jiro Ishimaru heard from a contact in Pyongyang that “high-end seafood such as shrimp, crab and sea cucumbers” had become available since the regime had lost the ability to export it to China.
Clearly, sanctions aren’t causing shortages of fish or seafood in North Korea. If anything, enforcing the ban on North Korea’s seafood exports and sales of fishing rights is more likely to do the exact opposite. Of course, North Korea is still smuggling some of its fish and seafood into China in violation of the sanctions.
Who Controls North Korea’s Seafood Trade?
Which agencies control North Korea’s fisheries industry? As it turns out, the answer is “most of them.” Kim Jong-un parcels out fishing rights like Tony Soprano parcels out sanitation contracts. At least some of the fisheries are affiliated with the North Korean military, but others are controlled by entities that are involved in criminal activity, human rights abuses, terrorism, and proliferation financing.
The basic operation within North Korea’s fisheries industry centers on ‘fisheries business units’. The Party, military, and Cabinet each run their own units. Directly under the Workers’ Party is the ‘fisheries export unit’, which is operated by the Daesung General Bureau (trade company), and in terms of the military, each corps runs a ‘no. 18 fisheries business unit’. There are also ‘regional fisheries units’, which are operated by the people’s economic arm of the Cabinet. [Daily NK, Oct. 2015]
“Daesung General Bureau” turns its proceeds over to Bureau 39, the state money laundering agency that funds North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In fact, “Daesung General Bureau” is probably an alternate translation or alias of the Korea Daesung General Trading Corporation, which the Treasury Department designated in 2010 for being a subsidiary of Bureau 39. Treasury designated Bureau 39 in 2010 for money laundering, drug dealing, luxury goods smuggling, and proliferation financing. The U.N. Security Council designated it in 2016.
The Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North’s foreign intelligence agency, also controls some of the seafood trade via a front called the Birobong Trading Company. The RGB carries out most of Pyongyang’s terrorist acts. The Treasury Department first designated it for arms smuggling in 2010. The U.N. Security Council designated it in 2016.
North Korea has given vessels like Po Thong Gang and Mu Bong a monopoly on king crabs, shrimp, and conch fishing. Therefore, they’re able to secure some 1,000 tons annually in marine goods and sell them to individual companies in Japan to buy the necessary reconnaissance equipment.
These bureau vessels also conceal their true origins and engage in trade as regular ships. Especially when they are subject to international sanctions and unable to make port entry, they use tactful tricks such as remaining in international waters, where Chongryon (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, an entity holding strong ties with Pyongyang) companies will come to their aid in trade. [Daily NK]**
From this August 2017 report, we glean more interesting details. First, a North Korean official was recently expelled from China for smuggling antiques, and second, in order to keep his official job title, he had to pay off “Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, the General Bureau of Reconnaissance, and the People’s Safety Agency,” which is designated by the Treasury Department for human rights abuses. Once again, every North Korean official has to kick up to someone, and the security forces are North Korea’s apex predators. According to the Daily NK, the fisheries business itself is no longer lucrative enough for a fisheries official to meet his quotas. The report attributes that to the plausible explanation that China was enforcing a ban on North Korean seafood shortly after the passage of UNSCR 2371. (China tends to “front-load” its sanctions compliance, only to relax it later. It won’t last unless we sanction the buyers of North Korean seafood.)
Did North Korea Privatize its Seafood Trade?
Recently, Andrei Lankov and his research assistant, Peter Ward, have argued that “at least some of” North Korea’s seafood industry consists of private commercial enterprises. They argue that sanctions on seafood exports set back a budding private industry. I asked Ward — he’s a perfect gentleman, and was very forthcoming about his evidence and findings — about the basis for his conclusion. He conceded that it was based on interviews with refugees who left North Korea in 2014 or earlier. For example, one of the refugees Lankov interviewed left the business in 2000 due to overfishing and lack of fuel.
Unfortunately, around 2014, there was (pardon the expression) a sea change in how Pyongyang managed its fisheries. Lankov contends that “by the mid-1990s … state-owned fishing companies ceased to operate almost entirely, and much of the fishing came to be done by private operators,” but the Daily NK’s more detailed and recent reports are more persuasive to me that central government agencies such as Bureau 39 control the vast majority of the seafood trade. That’s also consistent with Pyongyang general trend of bigger, state-controlled networks muscling out small-time enterprises.
Lankov argues that whether seafood revenues “ultimately pay for missiles is not something we can deduce from interview testimony,” but I’ve cited evidence that they fund North Korean state agencies that are designated by the U.N. Security Council for funding proliferation. The RGB and Bureau 39 have been blacklisted for years. All transactions with them are banned, regardless of what we can prove they’re buying with their money. Those are probably the agencies that control the main sources of fisheries income — big ships like trawlers, and sales of fishing rights.
[Larger commercial ships on North Korea’s east coast]
Lankov and Ward may be partially correct with respect to the smaller fishing boats. If you read the articles in the Asahi Shimbun here and here, and this from CNN, the consensus is that they’re under military control, are expected to kick up some of their earnings to “to the upper echelons of the state … for military activities,” but are under their skippers’ immediate operational control. The crews are paid in proportion to how many fish they catch. They keep a share of the revenue to pay for fuel and a share of the catch to feed themselves, but it’s not clear how much they can skim off. Given reports that Kim Jong-un ordered the fishermen to “[g]ive as much protein to soldiers as possible,” the military probably takes most of the catch. Some have tried to smuggle fish into China to take advantage of higher prices there, but the regime has cracked down on them. This “has been a serious blow to the residents’ livelihoods.”
Thus, Pyongyang has largely monopolized the fisheries trade, and the small-boat fisherman are desperate. Their boats are in poor repair and obviously aren’t a high priority to the state. They don’t have refrigerators or freezers, because they’re only designed to fish close to the shore and bring their catches home.
Lankov and Ward criticize sanctions banning North Korean seafood exports, so it’s worth asking whether North Korea should be allowed to export seafood. According to the World Food Programme, around 70 percent of North Koreans are food insecure. Their diets are especially deficient in proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals — deficiencies that could be made up with fish and seafood. As any foreigner who has lived in South Korea can attest, seafood is large part of the Korean diet. Koreans seemed to eat squid as often as Americans eat chicken. Shredded dried squid is one of Korea’s most popular snack foods (if you’ve ever been to a movie theater in South Korea, you can back me up here). But not to worry, says Hazel Smith: “Fish is, cannot be, and has never been seen as a major form of protein for the majority of people in North Korea.” Of course it can. People have dried, smoked, and salted fish since the middle ages, and dried fish can keep for years. Any country that can figure out how to enrich uranium can master the technology for drying and shrink-wrapping fish and squid.
If North Korea’s fisherman could sell their catches in North Korean markets, it would be far better for shoppers and the fishermen alike. Lankov also points to downstream industries, like the production and repair of fishing nets, that might be affected by sanctions. That’s fine, except that fishermen who catch fish for domestic markets need nets just as much as those who catch fish for export.
How Kim Jong-un Sold North Korea’s Fishing Rights to China
I’ve hypothesized that whatever caused North Korean fishing boats to drift out to sea and ultimately, to Japan, was the result of some change whose effects began to tell between 2013 and 2015. Neither fuel prices, nor the condition of the boats themselves, nor food prices, nor sanctions, nor weather explains that change. Something that happened between 2013 and 2015 forced those boats to sail out too far where they fell victim to the winds.
Consulting the elephantine OFK archives, I found this June 2014 post commenting on North Korea’s sale of fishing rights along the Yellow Sea coast — yes, on the other side of Korea — to China. It turns out that North Korea began selling fishing rights to China as early as 2004, shortly after Lankov’s interviewee quit the business due (in part) to overfishing. (Pyongyang’s sale of Yellow Sea fishing rights also upset South Korea, because some of the waters North Korea sold were actually south of the Northern Limit Line — you know, in the “peace zone.” After that, the South Korean Coast Guard had to chase away Chinese fishing boats.) By July 2016, this was generating $30 million a year in hard currency for Pyongyang, three times what it has previously earned by selling fishing rights, and 1,500 Chinese fishing vessels were fishing in North Korean waters. Alexandra Ma quotes Hazel Smith as saying that these fishing rights deals involve “North Korean companies of all sizes,” are ratified by the state, and are often verbal contracts to help conceal their existence. The arrangement has been very profitable for Pyongyang. For North Korea’s small fishermen, it has been an unmitigated disaster.
But is there any evidence that North Korea also sold off its fishing rights in the Sea of Japan? There is. This August 2016 report, sourced to South Korean intelligence, claims that North Korea also sold fishing rights in what Koreans call “the East Sea” to China through “an intermediary trade agency,” and that “[a]ll earnings have been funneled to prop up Kim Jong-un’s leadership.” If Pyongyang sold fishing rights to Chinese fisheries in blocks, that would explain why North Korea’s small fishermen have been increasingly squeezed by the loss of their fishing grounds and overfishing between 2013 and 2016.
There is also direct evidence of how the sale of fishing rights to Chinese trawlers devastated the fishing communities along North Korea’s east coast. Overfishing is clearly a major problem there. There are now 2,500 Chinese fishing boats off Korea’s coasts. The problem became much worse off the east coast in 2016. Sorry for the long quote here, but this report explains just about everything:
“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 entirety of any catch be handed directly over to China in exchange for cash– save the costs of the ship lease.
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 North Korean fisherman are furious, and some have reacted violently.
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. [Daily NK]
There’s an interesting historical parallel to this, half a world away. To hear the Somali pirates’ side of it, they were also humble fisherman until foreign ships caught all of their stocks and destroyed their livelihoods. The pirates say they took up arms to drive off foreign trawlers. Somalis living along the coasts cheered them as an ad hoc coast guard until they turned to indiscriminate piracy. The same rage now boils in the widows’ villages of Hamgyeong-do.
The cause of the ghost ships is most likely a change in the behavior of the fishermen due to man-made events occurring between 2013 and 2016. Overall, the evidence suggests that the sale of fishing rights, Chinese overfishing, and pressure by the military to keep up catch quotas drove the fishermen to drive their small, underpowered, ill-equipped, and poorly maintained boats further out to sea, where seasonal winds carried them too far out for them to make it back home. These men knew the risks, but they had no choice but to risk their lives and sail dangerously far from shore. Those risks converged to transform the Sea of Japan into a death trap for them. The current crop of ghost ships was likely blown out to sea by mid-to-late November gales. The winds that followed in the ensuing weeks blew them to Hokkaido saved dozens of them from a slow death.
Admittedly, this isn’t an airtight theory. The first confirmation that North Korea sold fishing rights in the Sea of Japan to Chinese fishing boats came in August 2016, years after the first ghost ships arrived in Japan. But the 2016 report doesn’t say when Pyongyang sold its east coast fishing rights, implying that the NIS may have only recently learned about an earlier sale. Two researchers from the Korea Maritime Institute think North Korea actually sold the rights to fish off its east coast “years ago.” An expert interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun (and archived by — yes, I know — Breitbart) says that at the end of 2015, the Ministry of State Security (then known as the State Security Department) had begun to muscle in on the military’s control of fishing in the East Sea. That fits with an L.A. Times report that a ghost ship found in 2016 was marked as State Security Department property. Around that time, North Korean fishermen began coming closer to South Korean waters than they’d been allowed in the past. That period also coincides with an earlier wave of ghost ships. Thus, it’s plausible that the National Intelligence Service might only have learned in 2016 what Pyongyang did between 2013 and 2016, perhaps because that was when Pyongyang first sold off the rights to waters close to its maritime border with South Korea. It isn’t a perfect match for our evidence of when Pyongyang began selling off its east coast fishing rights, but it aligns with the evidence better than any other explanation.
All of this has some important security implications. First, to the extent journalists are following their biases instead of the evidence, and attributing the ghost ships to sanctions that were unenforced or unenacted when the ghost ships first started to arrive, that misinformation has the potential to influence the policies of governments around the world. Of course, sanctions that affect Kim Jong-un’s cash flow indirectly affect any worker, peasant, or fisherman he decides to squeeze to replace that income, but this chain of moral agency is missing some links. It’s important for us to have a complete understanding of why North Korea’s fishermen are suffering, why North Korean children are denied the protein they need to grow up, where the profits of this theft are really going, and what harm those profits may do in the wrong hands.
Second, there is a real threat that desperate North Korean fishermen may become more violent. They’re already clashing with the Japanese Coast Guard, but their hottest rage is reserved for the Chinese fishing boats. Clashes between South Koreans and Chinese fishermen have already turned deadly. China may not escape conflict if North Korean fisherman eventually react the way Somali fishermen did toward the Chinese vessels that are depleting their stocks.
Third, China’s purchase of fishing rights represents a long-term threat to Korea’s food supply and territorial integrity. A plausible theory asserts that China may plan to assert permanent territorial claims on the waters where it buys fishing rights, under a strategy of “fish, protect, contest, and occupy.” The fact that the boats still sail from the widows’ villages of the east coast suggests that this change in behavior is driven by desperation. That desperation has the potential to take a variety of directions, all of them tragic for the people of North Korea.
~ ~ ~
* The OFK Style Guide’s position on “East Sea” is that we’ll consider it when Korea agrees to rename the Gulf of Mexico the “South Gulf.” The idea that a geographical place name implies territorial rights is legally spurious, silly, and necessarily confusing to persons who live on the other side of that named place. I could more easily accept “Korea Sea” than “East Sea.”
** Update: The last sentence in this blockquote lends some support to Marcus Noland’s theory in this Newsweek story that some of the boats on the east coast might be selling their catch to Chongryon. Maybe the Japanese Coast Guard should investigate whether Chongryon has interests in shipping or fishing boats that operate in the area. That would also fit with evidence that the Ministry of State Security runs some of the east coast fishing. The MSS doesn’t have as many prison camp guards to feed as the army has soldiers to feed, so it can afford to sell more of its catch for hard currency.