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New North Korean fishing regulations cause economic hardship for fishermen

Fishing in Yalu River, Sinuiju Town, North Korea. (Roman Harak/Flickr)
June 30, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Fishermen in North Korea are struggling to make a living now that authorities have set stricter new guidelines on permits to go out on the open sea—measures aimed at preventing defections that fishermen complain are preventing them from making a living as the peak summer fishing season begins.

Policies aimed at preventing fishermen’s defection by sea to places like Japan or South Korea were already in place. These included requiring fishermen to get passes every time they go out, and preventing fishermen from working on the same boat with other fishermen in their family.

“[Prior to the new rules,] if a fisherman wanted to go out to sea, he could get sea passes from his company, the State Security department, or the police station. They didn’t really have [many] restrictions,” said a source from Chongjin, North Hamgyong province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on Monday.

The source said the government’s official reasoning for introducing the tightened regulations is to impose order and prevent illegal behavior.

“[They] say they want to prevent fishing boats from entering the sea in a disorderly manner, and they want to stop illegal acts from happening at sea,” said the source.

“They threaten that in the event of [criminal action] at sea, company heads, managers and even State Security department personnel and police officers can be held responsible,” said the source.

Security had been lax in the past, and the fishing industry was all about who could catch fish and make money, the source said.

“Nobody cared what they did out at sea. They didn’t care about them or their fishing boats. But these new directives are a means of strengthening the government’s control, to the point that now [fishermen] need background checks,” said the source.

A second source, also from North Hamgyong, discussed how one of the regulations already in place became even more strict.

“In the past, they were able to prevent defections by keeping family members from sailing out to sea in the same boat, but they could still go out together by bribing an official.” the second source said, adding, “Now going out on the same boat is impossible.”

Defection to South Korea by North Korean fishermen is relatively common. On June 15 a small fishing boat carrying four North Korean civilians entered South Korea’s Samcheok port along the east coast of the peninsula. Two of the four intended to defect and are in the process of settling in the South, while the other two returned to the North by their own volition.

But to the fishermen of Chongjin and the surrounding area, those who have no intention of defecting find the new rules unfair.

“[Everyone] who lives along the sea [there] makes a living by catching fish in the middle of the summer, but now they won’t be able to support themselves because of all this extra [government] control,” said the second source.

“[They] complain about the [regulations] and they are resentful of the authorities, saying they have no interest in protecting the people’s livelihoods. They say the government only wants to focus on control and don’t care about how [it affects their lives,]” the second source said.

Reported by Myungchul Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.