Fishing For Divisions Between Beijing and Pyongyang

21 May

Dalian_NE AsiaWhen not proliferating nuclear devices, North Korea also specializes in various other means to get cash, like piracy. That’s why it’s easy to see incidents, such as the May 5 seizure of a private fishing vessel owned by a Chinese citizen, Yu Xuejin, and the resulting kidnapping of its 16 crew members, including its captain, through the perspective of North Korea’s current high-profile status as a problem child. One year ago, three fishing vessels and 29 crew members were involved in a very controversial incident, because the North Koreans stripped the vessels of everything from fuel to pencils. China and North Korea aren’t the only protagonists in these dramas involving fishing vessels. On May 9, a Taiwanese citizen was killed when a Philippine Coast Guard patrol boat peppered a Taiwanese fishing vessel with 59 bullets near the Batanes islands between The Philippines and Taiwan. And, even more sensationally, in December, 2010, Chinese vessels and the South Korean Coast Guard were the protagonists. And, just so you don’t think this is an “Asian thing” or a recent phenomenon, there are the Cod Wars between Britain and Iceland in the 1950s. International law and geography are the main culprit behind these and other incidents, which devolve into nationalistic feeding frenzies. And, like any other controversial story, national television is involved.

At  7 a.m. on May 6, Yu Xuejun received a phone call from the captain of a fishing boat he owns. “I asked him what the problem was,” Yu told state broadcaster China Central Television in an interview broadcast Monday, “and he said one of the ships was missing” from off the coast of Liaoning, a Chinese province that borders North Korea.

Thus began the bizarre, opaque, and as-yet unresolved saga of the North Korean kidnapping of 16 Chinese fishermen.

The next day, May 7, Yu received a call on a satellite phone from someone he identified only as “the North Koreans’ translator.” The mysterious caller asked for $200,000. “Then,” Yu told CCTV, “they said we don’t want that much, just $130,000.” Yu asked, “Why did you take my boat?” He couldn’t understand the caller’s answer.

“If you pay, we’ll release the boat,” the translator told Yu. The calls kept coming, from the same number. On the fourth call, Yu says, the captors dropped the number to $100,000 and allowed the captured captain to speak to him. “His voice was trembling. I could feel he was very afraid,” Yu wrote on his microblog, where he broke the news of the kidnapping. “I suspected that my crew had been mistreated. I can’t imagine what the North Korean side could do.”


According to Yu, his boat is now by the island of Changyon, which hosts a North Korean military base — one would guess that the boat would only be allowed to dock at that island with permission from Pyongyang. According to the website for state radio service Chinese Radio International, Kim Jong Un visited Changyon in 2012 and “expressed satisfaction” at the navy’s state of readiness.

The crux of the legal problem is the issue of exclusive economic zones. Exacerbating that nuisance are innumerable bureaucracies at every level of governance in any given state, including the military, with opaque and conflicting rules and directives about fishing and guarding borders. In short, what one local bureaucrat commands or permits might not even be acknowledged by its national suzerain, and then perhaps flouted by another. For instance, a province might direct fishing vessels to catch a certain quota every month of fish. To comply fishing fleets frequently violate the EEZ of neighboring states for the most self-interested of reasons, greed. When an incident does occur, perhaps the Foreign Ministry has to speak for the country as a whole, but another ministry takes the province to task for not achieving its quota. Meanwhile in the other country involved, the defense ministry is involved. All these various government organs and private interests undoubtedly are not good for gaining a general perspective, so particular interests take over, and the press falls victim to incomplete information.

Isaac Stone Fisher as much as admits this.

But if the “pirates” were actually members of the North Korean military acting in concert with Pyongyang, why the laughably small ransom? Yu told a Chinese journalist that he can’t pay the “sky-high price” of $100,000 — that may be true, but the sticker price for international incidents is usually higher than that of a luxury car. (By comparison, in 2010, the average ransom demand from Somali pirates was $5.4 million.)

Another example is this series of complaints by Chinese fishing vessel owners.

“North Korean soldiers have done this numerous times,” said a commentary from Beijing News. “We should not turn a blind eye to it.”

There was a similar sentiment among fisherman in Dalian’s Long Wang Tang Port, home to about 1,000 fishing boats.

Zhu Guangming, a 20-year veteran of the seas, said a fishing boat stood to be fined up to $80,000 by Chinese authorities if it went near North Korean waters. As a result, he and other fishing ship operators at this harbor say they don’t take their vessels out far at all, leaving them with little income and some resentment.

“If you get close to the border, the Chinese fine you, and they say they won’t rescue you,” Zhu said. “The Chinese side is weak.”

It’s the Foreign Ministry’s involvement that is attracting the most attention.

The Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that the vessel’s owner, Yu Xuejun, had called the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang on May 10 to seek help after North Korea captured the fishing boat, which operates from Dalian, a northeastern Chinese port city.

The ministry did not explain why it had waited so long to reveal the seizure, which has come at a time of brittle tensions with North Korea, an isolated country that depends on Beijing for diplomatic and economic support.

China has long supported North Korea, despite disagreement over the North’s nuclear activities, and many Chinese experts see the North as a strategic shield against potential regional domination by the United States and its allies, South Korea and Japan. But in recent months, signs of irritation have surfaced in the two countries’ relations.

The announcement about the captured boat promptly drew an outcry from Chinese media and citizens online, some of whom have already expressed increasing impatience with North Korea over its nuclear weapons ambitions and threats to the region. Since Saturday, the North has launched several short-range projectiles into waters off its east coast.

I think it’s important to view these incidents as a messy melange of all these conflicting perspectives. Recently, Taiwan and Japan agreed to recognize one another’s EEZ. Of course, Tokyo’s and Taipei’s interest in annoying Beijing over the Daioyus/Senkakus probably had more to do with the decision than fishing interests. But that’s the point: the two reached an agreement because it was in their mutual interest. No other dyad of states has reached that level of sagacity, which presumably requires multiple levels of government. Until then, these incidents, including the loss of life and property are the cost of doing business. As these incidents went down, other fishing vessels were probably violating EEZ and fulfilling quotas. This issue will go unresolved until that no longer is possible.

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One Response to “Fishing For Divisions Between Beijing and Pyongyang”


  1. Tiwesdæg: the Left-hand of Linkage » Duck of Minerva - 21 May 2013

    […] North Korean piracy and maritime disputes in Northeast Asia. […]

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