North Korea’s ‘Dark’ Fishing Fleet Quiet In 2020, Cutting Already Strained Food Supply

A new report shows that the amount of North Korean ships in the nation’s “dark fleet” for squid fishing have dropped significantly in 2020, cutting off the hermit kingdom’s popular staple in a time when the national food supply was already facing widespread shortages.

According to the Global Fishing Watch, the presence of North Korean vessels dark fishing for squid in Russian territorial waters decreased by over 90%, from 146,800 to 6,600 over the course of 2020, with fishing activity in North Korea’s own waters also showing heavy decline.

North Korea’s “dark fleets” are given the name as referring to illegal fishing vessels that do not broadcast their location or appear in public monitoring systems, often in violation of international maritime law, as stated by the Journal Science Advances. These dark fishing ships operate in waters between the Korean peninsula, Russia, and Japan, among the world’s most disputed and poorly surveyed territorial waters. Hundreds of North Korean vessels have washed ashore on Japanese and Russian coasts throughout recent years, sometimes with deceased sailors still aboard. Fishing villages along the North Korean east coast have even coined the name “widow’s villages.” Katherine Seto, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says “The consequences of this shifting effort for North Korean small-scale fishers are profound, and represent an alarming and potentially growing human rights concern.”

Throughout Northeast Asia, squid is a popular food source and its rising demand has begun to threaten the sustainability of the region’s decreasing squid population. In North Korea, squid is served as a snack in a variety of ways, including fermenting, barbecuing, stir-fried, or dried.

It appears to experts that Kim Jong-un closed North Korea’s borders last year and cut off its remaining ties with the outside world, knowing that the country’s wavering health care infrastructure could collapse under a coronavirus outbreak. Consequently, it gives Jaeyoon Park, senior data scientist at Global Fishing Watch, reason to believe the decline in North Korean dark fishing activity may be in direct correlation to the country’s tight entry and exit managing put in place to prevent coronavirus from entering the country. North Korean officials claim to have not had a single case of Covid-19, a claim most dismiss as blatant propaganda. However, the preventative measures have been costly. Trade with Beijing, Pyongyang’s economic lifeline, has plummeted by over 80%, based on data from China’s customs agency.

According to an April 2020 report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, approximately 10.1 million North Koreans suffer from food insecurity. The food insecurity of its people is caused by economic mismanagement, international sanctions, and lack of modern agricultural equipment. The North Korean food supply is believed to be more strained that it was during the famine of the 1990s with the CEO of Korea Risk Group, Chad O’Carroll, saying “We can safely say there are nationwide shortages of several key food types.”

To mitigate food insecurity, North Korea conducts numerous fishing operations with squid being its third largest export. However, North Korean fishermen tend to operate illegally outside their national waters due to overcrowding. In a study by Global Fishing Watch, the cause of the overcrowding was found to be squid fishing ships from China illegally operating in North Korean waters and displacing North Korea’s own fleet. North Korean fishermen became forced to operate farther away, often illegally in dangerous seas with their less-durable ships. It would result is many fatalities for the squid fishing crews. Even as Chinese vessels in North Korea’s waters decreased with outbreak of coronavirus North Korean squid fishing in its own territory stayed stagnant, effectively causing the squid supply to disappear.

The 2018 inter-Korean summits highlighted the necessity to build peace through cooperation on the seas, including the creation of a joint fisheries management area and to address illegal fishing. The venture will rely on mutually trusted unbiased information. Calls for cooperation to achieve a more comprehensive view of fishing activity have been answered with studies among scientists from South Korea, Japan, Australia, and the United States. However, if a truly cooperative management of fisheries is to be successful long term, further agreements should work to include Chinese, Russian, and if possible, North Korean counterparts.