Cracking Down on Illegal Chinese Fishing in North Korean Waters

By Margaux Garcia

Nowhere is the dark side of fishing more illicit or mysterious than in North Korean waters. To evade UN sanctions forbidding its export of seafood products, North Korea sells squid fishing permits to Chinese companies, who send out droves of boats to fish in North Korea’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Approximately one third of China’s distant-water fleet is involved in this conduct—but most of them are never caught.

Experts refer to them as “dark ships” because they are impossible to track via Automatic Identification System (AIS). The International Maritime Organization requires all vessels over 300 gross tons travelling internationally to broadcast AIS, but vessels involved in illegal fishing often turn off their transmitters in order to avoid having their activities tracked. Concerningly, China has recently taken steps to demonize AIS and restrict the sharing of AIS data. China Central Television (CCTV) released a report last year arguing that foreign intelligence agencies use AIS data to cause “serious harm to national security.” The government also enacted the “Personal Information Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China” in 2021, limiting the data that can be shared outside of China, via AIS or other methods. Following this, Reuters reported a significant drop in the number of Chinese ships visible on commercial AIS platforms outside of China.
Illegal fishing off of North Korea has several adverse effects for the region.

First and foremost, Chinese illegal fishing fleets support the Kim regime and its nuclear ambitions. UN sanctions implemented in 2017 forbid the export of North Korean seafood products as part of measures designed to discourage nuclear proliferation. Chinese fishing companies involved in buying fishing permits undermine this effort, directly financing the North Korean government and its $642 million annual nuclear program budget. The UN panel on sanctions compliance claims North Korea made $120 million in 2018 through selling fishing rights, and even continued to profit from fishing permits during the height of the pandemic.  

In addition to violating sanctions, dark fleets exacerbate North Korea’s dire humanitarian situation by taking away catches that impoverished North Koreans rely on for food. Seafood is an important source of nutrients for many in North Korea, where 10 million people suffer from food insecurity. North Korean fishing boats cannot compete with the modern Chinese trawlers that fish in North Korean waters, and therefore are pushed to fish in Russian and Japanese maritime zones. Most of these North Korean boats are not equipped for long journeys, and many end up arrested by Russian authorities or as wrecked “ghost ships." Japanese officials report that nearly 600 ghost ships were discovered between 2016 and 2020. They make a depressing scene - battered wooden boats filled with starved corpses. Sadly, with Chinese fleets monopolizing seafood catches off North Korea, coastal villages are forced to choose between dangerous voyages and malnutrition.  

Chinese dark fishing fleets off North Korea also present a challenge for regional marine sustainability. Asian fish stocks face a looming crisis, as scientists warn regional fisheries may collapse due to long-term overfishing and climate change. Dark fishing fleets are especially worrying because they ignore catch limits, driving marine populations to drastically low levels and depleting neighboring stocks as well. Japan and South Korea saw an 80-82 percent decline in squid stocks since 2003, despite implementing strict new fisheries regulations. Chinese ships in North Korean waters catch more fish than South Korea and Japan combined. China is by far responsible for the world’s largest catch of squid, and accounts for a disproportionately large percentage of fisheries crimes according to NGO Oceana. Reducing illegal fishing in North Korean waters won’t fix Asia’s fish stock shortages on its own, but it would be a step in the right direction.

Steps Forward

Fortunately, the international community is poised to make progress on this issue. Firstly, on June 17, the World Trade Organization (WTO) concluded a historic agreement to ban government subsidies that contribute to overfishing or illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Long-distance fishing expeditions are expensive, and in many cases cannot profit without government support defraying the costs of fuel. China is the country most notorious for its fishing subsidies, accounting for 21 percent of the international total, although it is far from the only culprit. Thankfully, China fully participated in WTO deliberations and committed to limiting its subsidies. Pressure from international institutions like the WTO is important, as it nudges China into taking action and enshrining sustainable principles into its domestic law.

Meanwhile, the Quad is attempting to tackle the challenge of dark fishing fleets from a different angle—this time, notably, without Chinese cooperation. At the Quad 2022 Tokyo Summit, leaders from Australia, Japan, India, and the United States established the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). The IPMDA provides greater scrutiny of fishing fleets and  “will allow tracking of dark shipping and other tactical-level activities,” according to the United States. Along similar lines, President Joe Biden recently signed a memorandum to combat international fishing violations. The IPMDA utilizes radio frequency (RF) detection, which can triangulate a ship’s location from its radio broadcasts and other signals. While Chinese dark fleets (and North Korean ships) often disable AIS, they commonly still carry a radio or radar onboard. Therefore, this technology can be an integral tool against Chinese dark fleets. Firstly, it provides greater information on the movement and numbers of ships, allowing researchers to calculate the full scale of the problem. Secondly, the IPMDA can deliver data to South Korean enforcement officials, giving them a chance of catching the offending ships. South Korea arrested the Chinese fishing ship Yodaneo 26013 in August 2021, suspected of fishing illegally in North Korean waters, when it was transiting South Korean waters: commercial RF data would make these types of enforcement actions much more routine.

The Chinese government itself is also beginning to address this issue, pledging to cap the number of distant-water squid vessel licenses in late 2021. In 2020/2021, the number of Chinese ships in North Korean waters dropped. That said, it is difficult to determine whether this trend will continue long term. Most observers attribute the drop to North Korea’s incredibly strict COVID-19 restrictions rather than Chinese regulation. As the world begins to move on from the pandemic, it is easy to imagine business returning to normal. But the license cap is still an encouraging development, as it would seem to suggest at least some recognition from Chinese authorities that its former fishing patterns were unsustainable.

Dark fishing around North Korea remains a challenge for stability in the Indo-Pacific. The practice undercuts the efficacy of sanctions, erodes the sustainability of fish stocks, and threatens the livelihoods of ordinary North Koreans who have no say in their government’s decisions. It is encouraging to see the WTO and the Quad working in their own ways to combat the problem by eliminating the perverse incentives caused by subsidies and improving the monitoring of IUU fishing in Asia. For its part, Beijing also appears to be taking this issue more seriously and, despite reluctance toward AIS data sharing, has at least begun to address its distant-water fishing problem. Overall, these are promising developments. But it will take continued efforts along multilateral, “minilateral”, and unilateral lines to address Asia’s fishery challenges and their North Korean component.

Margaux Garcia is a Research Intern with the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.