North Korean fisherman fishing for squid in Japan's EEZ. (Hokkoku Shimbun)

“Kim Il Sung worked hard to provide people at Pyongyang’s universities and hospitals with fresh seasonal fish.”

“Kim Jong Il’s dying words and last thing he wrote concerned a plan to provide Pyongyang residents with a fixed supply of fish every month.”

In 2016, the fifth year of his rule, Kim Jong Un — who to that point had been focused on bolstering national defense — had to recreate himself as a leader “who loves the people,” a man who takes good care of public livelihoods amid critical economic difficulties. He has since used the dying injunctions of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il — and the attaining of those injunctions — as political slogans every time he faces a crisis.

In December of 2012, Kim chose tons of high-quality fish to send to Pyongyang residents, universities in downtown Pyongyang and hospitals in the capital, including North Korea Red Cross General Hospital, Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, Kim Man Yu Hospital, Okryu Children’s Hospital and Pyongyang Emergency Hospital.

While North Korea might promote its large-scale provision of fish to Pyongyang residents as a major accomplishment, spotlighting Kim’s supposed love for the people, behind the propaganda are hidden tales of blood and tears from the fishermen of the military’s fisheries stations and their families. 

In January, KPA Fisheries Station 15 received plans for a so-called “fisheries struggle” to “normalize” regular monthly supplies of fish to Pyongyang citizens, universities and hospitals that year. The station responded by dividing up the winter fishing activities for January to March for each captain, including crew selection and fishery production totals.

The captains, crews and their families were rendered speechless by the absurdly ambitious plan put forth by the North Korean authorities, who were pushing the station to engage in dangerous winter fishing work. Everyone knew the crews’ lives would be at risk since so many accidents happen when fishing in winter. But the plan came down as an order, so they could not say no.

In the end, they turned their anger on the blameless residents of Pyongyang. The fishermen and their family complained that “because of Pyongyang people, they were going into the far-off waters of the East Sea to become fish food.”

North Korea planned to highlight Kim’s love of the people in the name of “achieving the dying wishes” of the country’s previous leaders. But instead, they sparked anger and hatred from fishermen forced to engage in dangerous, excessive work and their families.

In fact, there was a series of accidents involving damaged or lost boats and deaths due to excessive wintertime operations. In its fourth quarter report to the staff department of the Ministry of Defense’s General Rear Area Support Bureau in early April of 2016, Fisheries Station 15 said 11 boats were being repaired due to damage, while six boats and about 30 crew members had disappeared.

At the time, Fisheries Station 15 reportedly told the families of the roughly 30 men that their loved ones had died of hunger or cold while working in the East Sea.

The families wailed upon being told of their deaths, filled with regret over how their husbands and fathers died hungry and cold in the freezing winter sea. In particular, the wives of the fallen fishermen bitterly complained that they were turned into widows “because of the dying instruction to supply fish to Pyongyang’s people.”

At the time, the families received a condolence message from the Central Committee and 10 kilograms of fish and five kilograms of soybeans from the Ministry of Defense’s General Rear Area Support Bureau. The bereaved families, however, could not bear to look at or eat the food, which had been purchased with the lives of their husbands and fathers.

With Kim Jong Un’s “love of the people” bringing so much death and suffering to fishermen and their families, who and what is this “love for the people” ultimately for?

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