The Geopolitics of Squid
A few years ago, I wrote a post based on the paper “Has South Korea’s Engagement Policy Reduced North Korea’s Provocations?,”by Kim Insoo and Lee Minyong that argued to forget diplomacy: Northern Limit Line violations were a function of North Korea’s balance of payments position. Their argument, backed up with statistical analysis, was that when North Korea’s finances got squeezed, quotas were raised, and the NLL got violated. NLL incidents were not correlated with engagement, measured by diplomatic meetings, humanitarian aid or inter-Korean trade, but rather tracked an index of North Korean dependence on fish exports. Well, as Karl Marx (and Madonna) reminds us: we are living in a material world.
I was reminded of this fact when I stumbled over an Asahi Shimbun article titled “Sharp increase in North Korean fishing boats in Japan's EEZ.” The story by Takuya Suzuki leads with the observation that “The number of North Korean squid fishing boats entering Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has tripled this year” which Suzuki attributes to “the desperate economic conditions in the isolated nation.” According to the piece, the Fisheries Agency and Japan's Coast Guard report that nearly 400 North Korean vessels have entered the EEZ in the first eleven months of the year. This represents a tremendous increase from roughly 15 North Korean fishing boats in entering the EEZ in 2011, approximately 80 in 2012 and about 110 in 2013. Most of the boats are small, wooden, and are thought to belong to the North Korean military. The violating vessels are subject to seizure under maritime law, but North Korea has not joined the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, does not recognize the EEZ, nor does it have a bilateral fishing agreement with Tokyo.
Suzuki postulates that an explanation for the size in these incidents is the purging and execution of Jang Song-taek, who was thought to control some if not all of the squid business, the military’s move into the vacuum created by his removal, and Kim Jong-un’s subsequent instruction in his New Year’s Day speech to increase the fisheries catch. Captured crews have told Japanese authorities that the boats belong to the military, though the crews themselves are not members of the armed forces.
At the same time, Daily NK is reporting that despite North Korean claims of plentiful catches, the local price of fish has risen sharply. Their source claims that high prices for diesel, nets, ropes, and other supplies have kept most boats off the water. One exception: foreign-currency generating operations affiliated with the military which export most of their catch to China. Indeed, the piece by Choi Song Min observes that “North Korean leader Kim Jong Eun recently visited the No. 18 fisheries company under the auspice of the Chosun People’s Army and commended their fishing efforts, according to the Party-run daily Rodong Sinmun on November 19th” with an accompanying article praising the “honorable workers” of the fishing industry.
So whatever North Korea may think of Japan’s sponsorship in the United Nations of the resolution condemning North Korean human rights practices or the state of negotiations over abductees, it is plausible that maritime tensions between the two countries are being driven by a combination of bureaucratic maneuvering within North Korea, the pecuniary motives of the Korean People’s Army, and the price of squid in China. Not exactly what they teach you in grad school.