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Exclusive: Investigating how North Korean fishermen plunder foreign waters

Every year, during the squid fishing season, thousands of North Korean makeshift boats invade the waters of Japan and Russia.
Every year, during the squid fishing season, thousands of North Korean makeshift boats invade the waters of Japan and Russia. © Elena Volochine / FRANCE 24
By: Elena VOLOCHINE | Ian M. QUY
40 min

In this exclusive 35-minute documentary, we expose a massive and unknown fish smuggling and supply network in the Pacific Ocean. Every year, an armada of North Korean ghost ships invade the waters of the Russian Far East and Japan. From Vladivostok to North Korea, via China, our reporter Elena Volochine investigated the illegal fishing networks of the world's most secretive country, North Korea.

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Every year, during the squid fishing season between June and October, thousands of makeshift boats invade the waters of the Exclusive Economic Zones of Japan and Russia. These coarse wooden boats, made of studded planks covered with tar, with plastic propellers and stones as anchors, belong to the flotilla of secretive North Korea. Its leader Kim Jong Un is said to have ordered his people to fish more and more to feed the country, squeezed hard by international sanctions.

On the Russian and Japanese shores, local inhabitants find more and more ghost ships, these abandoned wrecks. Sometimes they even pick up the bodies of fishermen, thrown out by the sea. Here, no one understands why North Korean "poachers" face the high seas on boats from another time, risking their lives.

Meanwhile, the fishermen of the Russian Far East are angry. Their fishing is strictly regulated by quotas but the North Korean fleets come to shamelessly plunder their fishing resources in full view of the authorities. How are these illegal fishing channels organised? Who directs them and who covers for them?

Selling fishing licenses to China

Our investigation takes us to China and in particular to Dandong, a city bordering North Korea. There, in violation of UN sanctions, North Korean agents illegally sell fishing licenses to Chinese boats, on behalf of Pyongyang.

If North Korea sends its fishermen to "poach" in foreign waters, it's in order to preserve its own fishing resources and sell them at a steep price to its main trading partner, China. By selling its fishing resources to the Chinese, North Korea obtains revenue in foreign currency – vital for its economy, and something it has been deprived of since the sanctions of 2017.

As for China, a large consumer of fish and seafood, it has exhausted its own resources through uncontrolled overfishing. Each year, around 2,000 Chinese trawlers are therefore able to fish along the North Korean coast with impunity. 

This exclusive report is the result of a months-long investigation, filmed in Russia, China and North Korea. By retracing the "poaching" networks, our reporter exposed the networks of an underground economy which involves sovereign states, which have in fact voted for sanctions against Pyongyang at the UN.

This rare documentary sheds light on the most secretive regime in the world, which does not hesitate to sacrifice its population for its own survival.

A special report co-produced with Arte.

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