A Fishy Crisis: Russia Has Arrested North Koreans for Illegal Fishing

Mark Episkopos

Key point: This minor dispute could end up badly damaging relations between the two nuclear powers.

Russian border patrol has detained 161 North Korean sailors for suspected poaching activity in the Sea of Japan, triggering a diplomatic conflict that is raising concerns in Moscow about the future of the Russian-North Korean security relationship.

It was first reported by RIA state news agency earlier this week that Russian border patrol confronted two North Korean schooners and eleven motorboats allegedly conducting illegal fishing activities on Russia’s far east coast. Border patrol detained one of the ships, reportedly prompting the other to open fire in a small skirmish that led to the injury of three Russian border patrol officials and several North Korean sailors. The entire North Korean expedition, numbering 161 personnel, was detained in the aftermath of the shootout. 

Far from an isolated case, this incident is the culmination of a long-running series of fishing tensions between North Korea and its Russian neighbor. According to Aleksei Maslov, director of the Center for Strategic Studies of China and one of Russia’s foremost East Asia experts, “unfortunately, North Korean piracy and illegal fishing have always existed in one form or another within our territorial waters.” Maslov asserts that Russian authorities have turned a blind eye to similar North Korean behavior for years, but that the armed, 161-strong poaching expedition was the straw that broke the camel’s back: “I think [our] patience snapped, our border guards began enforcing the law, and DPRK realized that the warnings are over.” 

Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced that it plans to summon Chin Jeong Hyup, charge d'affaires of the DPRK’s Russian Embassy, regarding the incident. 

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