Russia and North Korea Are Fighting—Over Fish

Moscow’s broader ambitions for the Far East are stopping it from cracking down on North Korean poachers in Russian waters.

Two helicopters fly over the landing command ship during the Vostok-2018 military drills at Klerka training ground on the Sea of Japan coast on Sept. 15, 2018.
Two helicopters fly over the landing command ship during the Vostok-2018 military drills at Klerka training ground on the Sea of Japan coast on Sept. 15, 2018. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images

Throughout 2019, a series of spats between Russian authorities and North Korean vessels occurred over illegal fishing in the Sea of Japan/East Sea. In July, North Korea detained a Russian fishing vessel, claiming that the crew had illegally entered its territorial waters. On Sept. 17, the crew of a North Korean fishing vessel opened fire on Russian authorities, wounding several Russian border guards. Later in September, Russia stopped three North Korean fishing vessels in Russia’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan/East Sea, claiming that the vessels were again illegally fishing. In September alone, Russia’s coast guard is thought to have detained around 16 vessels from North Korea.

While Russia did summon North Korean diplomats over this issue and detained more than 250 North Korean sailors for a short time, the situation did not escalate beyond some sharp rhetoric. This was a muted diplomatic response considering that this was not the first violent incident against Russian security personnel by North Korean fishermen in Russian waters. While Russia has refrained from imposing harsher penalties in response to these crimes, Russian courts have taken punitive action against North Korean nationals involved.

The Primorye Fisheries Association, a union that represents fishermen in Russia’s Far East, where most of the country’s fishing stocks are caught, has appealed to the Russian government to respond more strongly to the poaching of Russian stocks. But this has amounted to little, as Moscow is reluctant to damage relations with Pyongyang and risk any political instability in its Far East border region that could impact negatively on the foreign investment it hopes to attract there.

However, Russia may be forced into a response sooner rather than later. Against these increasing incursions from North Korean fishermen, and should Russia prove unable to revive its fishing industry—on which many isolated communities depend—it may be obliged to respond more firmly, if only to send a message to its Far Eastern community that Moscow is listening.

Russia has some tools at its disposal to encourage North Korea to change its behavior at sea, including prolonging detentions of North Korean fishermen, threatening to bring them to trial, or even restricting some of Russia’s previously cordial business links with North Korea—an initiative that Russia’s Ministry for the Development of the Far East has taken the lead on. Suspending these trade links would not likely have much of an economic effect on either side, given that only nascent exchanges are taking place, but it would send a clear political signal to North Korea.

Russia is unlikely to risk fundamentally damaging relations with North Korea or prompting any regional instability that could have implications for Russia’s own domestic security.

But ultimately, Russia is unlikely to risk fundamentally damaging relations with North Korea or prompting any regional instability that could have implications for Russia’s own domestic security, for two main reasons.

The first is security. Russia has little interest in sparking instability on its own borders and is keen to defuse any potential spats in its Far East that could suggest a less attractive investment climate. Part of the Russian government’s major economic strategy for the next few years is to develop the Far East as a regional business hub, with the aim of attracting investment from partners such as China, Japan, and South Korea. President Vladimir Putin has promoted the Russian Far East’s investment opportunities in numerous public statements and has poured government funding into business-friendly initiatives to encourage foreign investors to gain footholds in the region. Irrespective of the limited investment that these initiatives have yielded, attracting foreign direct investment is a much greater priority for the Kremlin than wading into a diplomatic spat with North Korea, with the sole aim of defending Russia’s aging fishing industry.

The second reason for Russia’s muted response to North Korea is likely to be because of weaknesses in Russia’s own fishing industry. Despite the high expectations from the Federal Agency for Fisheries and other national authorities, Russia’s Far Eastern fishing industry is not adequately positioned to compete with these North Korean fishermen. Russia’s declining fishing industry means that it is not able to take advantage of the lucrative fishing stocks for itself, leaving a vacuum that North Korean poachers have filled.

Fishing has always been a staple industry of Russia’s Far East but has been beset by various problems, including climate change, a lack of funding for expensive fishing vessels, and little interest among the population in taking up the trade. In a bid to remedy this, the Russian authorities announced in early 2019 that they planned to increase Russia’s fishery export potential from $5.5 billion to $8.5 billion over the next five years, including investing in new processing plants near ports in the Far East.

In this vein, in January 2020, the Federal Agency for Fisheries officially launched a new government-organized initiative called Russian Fish, aimed at marketing Russian seafood products abroad. It seemed that official figures supported the growth strategy; in 2019 the Far East region collectively caught stocks 2.4 times higher than usual, at 30,500 tons. But other facts belie these figures. Russia’s squid stocks for 2019—like Japan’s—were lower than anticipated, driven by climate change and overfishing, including increasing activity from North Korean vessels. Russia also has a fundamental shortage of skilled fishermen, preventing Russia from fulfilling many of the government-mandated incentives to improve the fishing industry and increase stocks.

But at the same time, North Korea in 2018 announced plans to develop fishing-related infrastructure on its eastern seaboard in an effort to boost its industry. There are also indications that the North Korean government is selling its territorial fishing rights to as yet unnamed foreign fleets—in contravention of United Nations sanctions—which would result in more domestic competition for local North Korean fishermen. This would provide another incentive for these fishermen to push further into Russian territory, seeking additional fishing stocks.

The challenges to meeting national expectations for the fishing industry come at a time when Moscow is tightening up key performance indicators for its regional governors, especially in the Far East. This means that if governors are unable to boost the economic performance of their regions, attract foreign investment, and quell local protests, their jobs will be under threat. Local tensions have risen over the fishing industry; in recent years, there have been protests in regions like Khabarovsk over fish shortages and poachers encroaching on fishermen’s territory.

Despite the political importance placed on the fishing industry in Russia’s Far East, the country’s security sector seems unable or unwilling to protect the vessels. The Federal Security Service (FSB), which is responsible for guarding Russia’s borders and coasts, has admitted that it cannot keep up with the many poaching vessels operating in the region. As North Korean vessels also seem unwilling to stop such incursions, there is little that the FSB can do without unduly damaging the bilateral relationship. Indeed, in remarks after the detention of the fishermen, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea in October 2019 offered a low-key response, highlighting the importance of a mutual resolution.

The government may also be wary of sending mixed messages: In December, along with China, Russia proposed that the U.N. Security Council roll back economic sanctions imposed against North Korea, with Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, maintaining that the move was prompted by humanitarian considerations. Given this, Moscow may be especially reluctant to simultaneously impose its own economic or financial measures against Pyongyang in response to the illegal fishing incursions.

As a projection of strength, Russia will often defend its stake in regional politics but is unwilling to become particularly economically or politically embroiled in North Korea’s dealings. Projecting stability in the Far East is key, and any sense of volatility there is likely to scare off investors.

All of this strongly suggests that on the foreign-policy front, Russia has not yet decided how to approach North Korea on this issue and is too focused on domestic issues to address it head on. Russia appears to have calculated that maintaining regional stability and avoiding a confrontation with North Korea over the illegal fishing issue are more important than attempting to boost its own fishing industry. As one of the traditional industries of the Far East declines, Russia will have to hope that other investments in the region pay off.

Emily Ferris is a research fellow in the International Security Studies department at RUSI, specializing in Russia and Eurasia’s foreign policy.

Hamish MacDonald is an associate fellow at RUSI.

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