North Korean fishermen risking lives to meet fishing quotas

North Korean fisherman fishing for squid in the EEZ. Image: Hokkoku Shimbun

North Korean fishermen in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, are continuing to risk their lives to catch fish due to the regime’s policies aimed at increasing the volume of marine products produced by the country.  

“A lot of people die due to careless fishing operations each year, and this year we’ve lost a lot. The authorities are telling them all to ‘earn a lot of money, and they pay for it with their lives,” said a North Hamgyong Province-based source on November 25.

“The number of fishing boats out at sea near Chongjin seems to have grown three-fold over the past 10 years. More boats are needed, of course, to meet the quotas handed down from above.”

Fishermen are heading out to sea without proper preparation to meet the fishing quotas set by the authorities. There has also been a decline in the numbers of squid and other marine animals (that typically fetch high-prices) near the coast, meaning that the fishermen have to head further out to sea to catch them, the source reported.

According to an Asia Press report citing the Japanese Fisheries Agency, North Korean fishing boats have been seen near Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) since late May, and some 5,000 North Korean fishing boats are estimated to be fishing illegally in this zone following a drastic rise in the area in October.

Through special reporting earlier this year, Daily NK interviewed Japanese fishermen who said that the number of North Korean squid-catching boats fishing in Japanese waters had increased significantly. The fishermen all noted that the North Korean boats they had seen were small craft unsuitable for fishing in the open ocean, with one fisherman noting that “taking such a boat out to sea is suicide.”

Despite the situation, the North Korean authorities continue to press fishermen to increase their production. During his New Year’s Address in January this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stressed the “need to raise [the battle spirit] in the agricultural and marine product ‘frontlines.'”

Premier Pak Pong Ju stated during the 6th Meeting of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly in April, “We will unconditionally meet our marine production goals in the marine product sector through a scientific fishing battle.”

The North Korean authorities are promoting a “fishing battle” as part of their efforts to overcome the government’s lack of funds due to international sanctions. UN Resolution No. 2371 completely prohibits the import of North Korean marine products, but the products are nonetheless being circulated across the Sino-North Korean border, according to sources in the country.

“Chinese [merchants] come to Rason and buy fresh fish, freeze them and then take them back to China,” said a separate source in North Hamgyong Province. “They pay for the fish with Chinese yuan and take back clothes, rice and whatever else back to China through Rason, regardless of the sanctions.”

North Korean fishermen, meanwhile, find out about weather conditions by listening to South Korean radio.

“Fishermen use their mobile phones or small radios to listen to South Korean radio out at sea,” said a source in South Hamgyong Province

. “North Korea has its own weather broadcasts, but it’s unreliable. The fishermen make sure to listen to South Korean radio because it tells them what the sea conditions will be in detail.”

Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to