North Korean Fishing Boats Held in Port Over Defection Fears

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Disused fishing boats rest behind a wire fence separating North Korea from China in a file photo.
Disused fishing boats rest behind a wire fence separating North Korea from China in a file photo.

At the start of North Korea’s summer fishing season, most of the country’s smaller fishing vessels remain anchored at dockside because of new regulations forbidding boats without wireless equipment from going to sea, North Korean sources say.

The tightened rules appear aimed both at preventing sinkings in bad weather and at reducing defections by  crews of the smaller craft, one source in North Hamgyong province, bordering China, told RFA’s North Korean Service.

“The rules have been tightened since last March, with authorities exercising strict control over fishermen’s licenses and their possession of small radios,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Wireless equipment is being installed only on medium and large-size fishing vessels so that State Security Department officers can travel with their crews and monitor the communications networks,” he said.

“The authorities are refusing permission for this equipment to be given to ordinary fishermen and their small boats,” he said.

Because wireless communications devices that receive weather alerts also operate like radios, “people are able to listen to broadcasts from South Korea and the outside world when they are far out at sea,” another source from North Hamgyong said.

“[Security] officers sailing with the bigger vessels keep a tight rein on their crews so that they have no access to the equipment,” he said.

Ghost ships

Storms and engine failure kept many smaller craft, some of whose captains paid bribes to be allowed to sail, from returning safely to port last year, the source said.

“Many people die at sea because of high winds and waves or due to engine malfunction, with some boats left drifting in the coastal waters of Japan.”

Scores of so-called “ghost ships” carrying the decomposed remains of fishermen have been found floating off Japan’s west coast  in recent years.

North Korea’s refusal to allow small fishing boats to leave port has resulted in widespread and severe hunger among the country’s poorer fishermen, with growing numbers now trying to escape the country by sea, the sources said.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Dohyun Gwon. Written in English by Richard Finney.





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