The Trouble with North Korean Ships in the Sea of Japan

By Kevin R. Princic —

Satellite image of squid fishing boats operating in the Sea of Japan at night. Source: sjrankin’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

A growing number of North Korean fishing vessels have disrupted the fishing industry in the Sea of Japan. By illegally fishing and overfishing in Japanese waters, North Korean crews not only jeopardize the safety of Japanese fishermen but also threaten the sustainability of squid fisheries. To remedy this problem, Japan must step up its monitoring of its fisheries in the Sea of Japan and ensure full implementation of United Nations (UN) sanctions.

Over the course of 2017, Japanese authorities discovered hundreds of North Korean boats illegally fishing in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) near the Yamato Bank, an area known for its rich squid fisheries. Reportedly, North Korean companies sold the fishing rights to the EEZs on both the east and west coasts of North Korea to Chinese companies and North Korea has sold Chinese boats access to its waters since 2004. For example in 2016, North Korea sold fishing rights to China for a total of $30 million to some 1,500 Chinese ships. In 2017, North Korea sold $75 million worth of its fishing rights, increasing the area to above the Northern Limit Line, a disputed maritime border between  North and South Korea.

Recognizing this was a means for Kim Jong-un’s regime to curtail sanctions and procure foreign currency, on December 22, 2017, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2397 (UNSC 2397) was adopted which “prohibited [North Korea] from selling or transferring, directly or indirectly, fishing rights.” These contracts are largely verbal meaning their existence is hard to prove and terms are largely unknown except to the parties involved. As a result, it is unclear if these contracts are still in place and violating this latest tranche of UN sanctions.

International sanctions have also pushed the Kim regime to set higher catch yields forcing North Korean fishers to venture further asea. The North Korean EEZ borders China’s EEZ to the west, Japan’s to the east, and South Korea’s EEZ to its south. As Chinese fisheries in the Yellow Sea and Bohai Sea west of North Korea are already dangerously overfished and the South Korean coast guard has opened fire on Chinese ships caught illegally fishing in South Korean waters, fishing crews from North Korea have moved east into Japan’s EEZ.

In response, Japan has announced its intent to crack down on illegal fishing in the Sea of Japan by increasing patrol boat fleet and building new bases to berth these boats. The Director-General of Japan’s Fishery Agency reiterated the need to crack down on illegal fishing and cooperate with neighboring countries to restore stocks. The backing for a heightened response is illustrated in the upcoming third iteration Basic Plan on Ocean Policy, which will include improved countermeasures against illegal fishing boats accomplished by increasing the number of patrol vessels.

The problems posed by North Korean fishing ships are twofold. First, the ships create a dangerous operating environment for themselves and for Japanese crews. North Korean fishing boats are often wooden and ill-equipped for the open sea; most lack essential modern instruments like GPS and automatic identification system beacons. These shortcomings, in conjunction with their sheer numbers around Yamato Bank, dramatically increase the likelihood of accidents at sea. In addition, Japanese fishermen have reported North Korean boats exploiting Japanese squid jigs that use lights to attract their catch at night, waiting for the squid to approach the Japanese ships before swooping in to net the catch. The Japanese ships have begun to shun the bank for fear of colliding with the poachers, and have little choice but to return home empty-handed.

The second problem lies in the overexploitation of Japan’s squid fisheries and dwindling squid populations in Northeast Asia. Overfishing in both Japan and North Korea’s EEZs prevents squid populations from adequately recovering. Industries and fisheries alike become unsustainable as catches shrink and prices skyrocket. In 2017 South Korea’s squid catch to the lowest level the country has seen in the past five years due to Chinese fishing vessels overfishing the North Korean EEZ, because mobile populations like squid will freely cross boundaries at sea, especially where neighbors are packed closely together. Chinese fishermen literally “sweep the ocean floor” to catch squid in North Korea’s EEZ, leaving little area for squid to lay eggs and reducing the number of squid that can be found in South Korean fisheries.

Two policy recommendations can help blunt this crisis. In connection with the announcement from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries that it intends to crack down on illegal fishing, ensuring Japan Coast Guard presence and overflight at Yamato Bank and other at-risk fisheries is essential. North Korean boats do not employ automated identification systems (AIS), meaning it will be difficult to track them digitally. Satellite radar can track ships at sea without AIS, but a physical presence coupled with overflight is necessary to discourage illegal fishing and catch offenders. Without a physical presence, it will take time for the Japan Coast Guard to arrive at the scene, allowing time for North Korean ships to arrive in greater numbers and require large scale expulsion which risks escalating tensions between North Korea and Japan.

The second recommendation is to ensure full implementation of UNSC 2397. Because China stands to lose out if fishing rights are returned to North Korea, it may resist implementing these sanctions. Japan has several options to ensure Chinese implementation of UNSC 2397. Japan and North Korea do not have official relations so a bilateral solution between the two countries would prove difficult if not impossible. Sino-Japan relations, however, have warmed recently as  the Chinese Foreign Minister expressed his desire to improve relations earlier this year and  multilateral options also exist, including a regional meeting between effected parties or taking the matter to the UNSC.

With this in mind, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration should take advantage of the potential upcoming summit in early May with South Korea and China to raise this issue. Though bilateral relations between Japan and China may be improving they remain fragile. Consequently, rushing into negotiations over UN sanctions and illegal fishing may stifle positive momentum. While Japan and South Korea share common ground as both of their fishing issues partly stem from unregulated Chinese fishing in North Korea’s EEZ, Tokyo will need to tread carefully to prevent contentious issues from impeding negotiations. If trilateral negotiations fail, the UNSC 1718 Sanctions Committee would represent the last option for Japan. Japan will need to weigh its own interests and maritime security and decide if the benefits of regaining Yamato Bank are worth fraying relations with China.

Mr. Kevin R. Princic is a Washington Reporter with The Yomiuri Shimbun covering U.S. foreign policy. He previously worked with CSIS as an intern with the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and with the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York. Follow him on twitter: @K_Princic. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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