The Geopolitics of Squid

December 4, 2014 5:45 AM

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.



Interesting quantitative backing for brief qualitative exposition of UFD maritime provocation strategies in Jang Jin-sung's "Dear Leader"! I enjoy seeing such combinations of approach leading to avenues of thought from different directions coming into a kind of convergent discourse, which I find this blog invaluable for.


Thinking out loud, would be fascinating to compare conditions at beginnings of maritime provocation strategies formulations to current conditions. I suspect core continuities and several differences that follow internal elite-political dynamics.


I should have added for clarity, the brief exposition in the book itself didn't have space to go into how economic rights are institutionally controlled, but his pieces in Korean surrounding that go into much detail.


When I stayed in North Korea in September 2014, in the restaurants we got fish every day. Menue starts with legumes, fish, could noddles (fine!)...and so on - and interesting: The last dish before the dessert is rice and soup.
One day we were offered dog soup, which I refused. Others told me, doog tasted like deer.
Marcus, geopolitics and the dogs ?
Or: Look at the "famine" in NK and China, they have to eat their dogs !

William Westbrook

Elaborate meals for foreigners! Right out of Stalin's 1934 playbook. As Malcolm Muggeridge recalls from his Moscow days, "I was temporarily standing in for the correspondent of an American news agency, and received a cable asking for the Soviet-man-in-the-street's reaction to the lavish scale of entertaining in Soviet embassies abroad. Without thinking I replied: MAN-IN-STREET'S REACTION STRONG DESIRE GET NEAREST BUFFET." He later described it as the only sentence he ever telegraphed from Moscow -- perhaps the only sentence anyone telegraphed from Moscow -- that he regarded as wholly true.


did you ever have been within NK ? I suppose no.
Your weird "Stalin"-piece can´t frighten anyone, because it´s so obvious, that he would´nt have been able to crush the powerfull German "Wehrmacht" with hungry people.


Roland, wow, I never thought someone would truly fall for that and think that large meal for foreigners in NK means that there is no food shortage...
Have you ever heard of the term "useful idiot"?

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