We recently published a few of articles focusing on North Korea’s struggle to control its territorial waters. From the exploitation of offshore oil deposits to the construction of the conspicuously ineffective pair of frigates, Pyongyang appears to be doubling its effort to expand the country’s presence in the high seas.
In particular, according to figures provided by Rodong Sinmun in April, the North Korean state has allocated a 5.1% increase for the development of agriculture, stockbreeding, and fishery in this fiscal year’s budget. With the country’s immediate food needs diminished by increasing grain production and relative market stability, North Korea’s economic planners appear to have set their eyes on the much-needed diversification in the people’s diet.
Emphasizing the growing importance of marine resources in meeting the country’s need for protein, Rodong Sinmun on May 29 praised workers at the Ongjin Coastal Fisheries Office for meeting 110% of their quota in the first quarter. The article further noted that the sector was engaged in studying ocean currents and modernizing boats and equipments in order to further increase the people’s consumption of fish and other marine products.
This intensified focus on marine resources is not unprecedented. In an exciting new essay published on Sino-NK, Dr. Robert Winstanley-Chesters highlighted how Kim Il Sung included fishing and fisheries “within the frame of wider development,” embedding the sector “in a thick set of connecting institutional repertoires” during the 1960s and 70s.
Just as the fishing sector played a role in bolstering the state’s broader developmental and political goals during the Cold War, Pyongyang’s intensified engagement with the sea in 2014 appears to be also interwoven with not only economic policy but also foreign policy.
On May 20, the South Korean navy fired warning shots at three North Korean patrol boats spotted south of the Northern Limitation Line (NLL). The following day, Pyongyang condemned Seoul for knowingly engaging in provocative behavior while the North Korean navy was conducting a “routine” patrol mission to prevent peaceful Chinese fishing vessels from poaching in “sensitive waters.” The spokesperson from the Korean People’s Army then proceeded to threaten to fire upon any South Korean vessel spotted along the contested maritime border. In an uncharacteristically prompt and punctual manner, North Korea carried out their threat the very next day, firing two artillery rounds directed at a South Korean naval vessel on patrol near Yeonpyeong Island.
While there are a lot of interesting aspects to this most recent provocation (including its timing – North Korea fired on the South Korean guided-missile patrol boat only hours after Director of National Security Kim Jang-soo and Director of the National Intelligence Service Nam Jae-joon resigned), the mention of Chinese fishing vessels in the area caught our attention.
Sure enough, a South Korean government source revealed to Joongang Daily on May 29 that Seoul believes that North Korea has leased fishing rights to waters south of the NLL to Chinese fishing vessels. On May 31, Seoul announced that it had asked Beijing, via official diplomatic channels, to confirm whether Chinese fishermen were granted permission to operate south of the NLL.
Flying both Chinese and North Korean flags, Chinese fishing vessels are suspected of paying valuable foreign exchange to Pyongyang for the privilege of fishing in the waters near the NLL. Additionally, Chinese fishing operations are believed to be providing assistance to their North Korean counterparts through a cooperative fishing partnership. No wonder the Ongjin Coastal Fisheries Office has been so successful.
Both North and South Korea have had their fair share of run-ins with Chinese poachers – but if the recent allegations by the South Korean government are true, Pyongyang is playing the ball game at a whole new level. Military officials in Seoul have already voiced concerns that North Korea is using the lease of the waters south of the NLL to nullify South Korea’s control over the maritime boundary.
Now, it is possible that Chinese fishing vessels are migrating south in pursuit of better fishing grounds without North Korea’s permission as the stock of squid and crab around the Ongjin Peninsula become depleted. However, given how this issue could produce rifts between Seoul and Beijing at a time when the two governments are quickening their pace towards closer economic cooperation, the situation provides Pyongyang with too much maneuver space for it to have been entirely accidental.
Ecological consequences aside, North Korea is likely playing a very strategic game – simultaneously increasing its own harvest of fish, challenging the contested maritime boundary, and creating the possibility of cooling the relations between Beijing and Seoul.
Then again, this invasive policy (to fish stocks and South Korea) is so well-coordinated and coherent that one can also just as well argue for Pyongyang’s complete non-involvement.