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View more articles by Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna is an analyst on Russian foreign policy in East Asia for the Sino-NK research group. He currently resides in South Korea.
A group of 15 Russian sailors, accompanied by two South Korean citizens, can now heave a huge sigh of relief.
After a fishing boat, the Russia-flagged and Russian-owned Xiang Hai Lin 8 and its crew were detained by North Korean border guards on July 17 and held in the city of Wonsan, DPRK authorities released the crew, which subsequently called into the South Korean port of Sokcho.
The sailors were detained, according to North Korean authorities, for what was cited as illegally crossing into waters under North Korea’s jurisdiction.
The crew-members were all released in decent condition. Yet during their detention, the deputy director of the Northeastern Fishery Company, Sergei Sedler, deplored the conditions in which the sailors were held.
According to Sedler, the detainees were held in conditions ranging from 30-35 degrees Celcius without ventilation, and were subject to severe interrogation twice a day.
The Russian embassy was reported to have been working around the clock in order to help resolve the incident. Following the ship and crew’s release, the Russian embassy declared that they would continue to provide more information on the conditions surrounding the ship’s detention.
Russian authorities have occasionally detained North Korean sailors for illegal fishing within its territorial waters, citing provisions in the Russian criminal code dealing with either illegal fishing or illegal border crossing.
Likewise, North Korean authorities have detained Russian citizens sailing in what the DPRK considers to be waters under its own legal jurisdiction.
Nevertheless, this particular incident was notable both for the length of time the Russian citizens were detained as well as the number of people in captivity, compared with past cases.
In response to the detention on July 17, Russian authorities threatened to halt talks on cooperation between the DPRK and Russia over fisheries. Fishing is an area in which Moscow is particularly keen to develop cooperation with the two Koreas.
North Korea’s detention of a group of sailors was unlikely to damage relations in a profound way. Addressing the Russian citizens’ captivity, one Russian official stated that, given the sound relationship between the two countries, the Russian government expected the sailors to be allowed to return home once North Korean law enforcement completed an investigation.
The strong relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang may have helped move the situation along to an agreeable conclusion. Russia’s threat to curb cooperation with the DPRK, however, may have sped up the release of the detainees.
This particular incident was notable both for the length of time the Russian citizens were detained as well as the number of people in captivity
Trade between North Korea and the Russian Federation has plummeted recently, and Pyongyang can ill afford to lose another area of collaboration with Russia.
The incident itself may have passed relatively quickly and without major incident. Nevertheless, it could very well color future cooperation between the DPRK and the Russian Federation.
At the root of the problem that led to the detention of the crew of the Xianghai 8 is the unilateral application of North Korean law in contrast to international legal standards.
The main law governing maritime issues between states is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS stipulates that a country’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from the coast of the country’s territory.
North Korea signed the UNCLOS in 1982, yet has not yet ratified the treaty as a party. Neighboring Northeast Asian states – including China, Japan, the ROK, and Russia have all ratified the treaty, meaning that they, unlike North Korea, consider it legally binding upon themselves.
This fact in and of itself was not likely what led to the detention of the Russian sailors. Yet the DPRK’s failure to submit itself fully to international law underscores how Pyongyang dances to its own beat in terms of maritime issues in Northeast Asia.
Since 1977, the DPRK has claimed a zone extending 50 nautical miles from its eastern flank as a special military zone. According to a declassified CIA report, the use of the waters by foreign military vessels in this zone is prohibited, while civilian watercraft “excluding fishing boats” require permission to operate in the waters.
Even while this particular policy goes unrecognized by multilateral conventions, the question naturally arises of how the DPRK authorities could believe that they are authorized to detain a ship 55 nautical miles off its coast.
The aforementioned CIA report notes that “it is possible” the North Korean government considers the waters inside North Korea’s Tongjoson Bay to be its internal waters.
This incident serves as a reminder that North Korean laws are not always in line with international conventions
From that baseline marking the outer edge of Tongjoson Bay, the report posits, North Korea may begin both their 12 nautical mile measurement as well as the starting point of the 50 nautical mile zone.
The North Korean government’s demarcation of the zone was done unilaterally and the DPRK’s right to enforce laws in this area as the DPRK stipulates is not recognized under international law (this of course excludes provisions pertaining to the DPRK’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from the coast).
Legal issues have, of course, already exerted a strong effect on North Korea-Russia economic ties. This is especially true of UN sanctions, which Russia has ties to adhere to (although there are reports that North Korean laborers continue to enter Russia despite a UN-imposed ban using visa fraud).
This particular incident, however, serves as a reminder that North Korean laws are not always in line with international conventions and norms.
Moscow may be aware of its obligations to adhere to international law when conducting trade with the DPRK. Yet this is a case-in-point of how ignorance of the laws of North Korea itself, ones not in line with international norms, can create unforeseen complications.
The Russian fishermen operating on the Xiang Hai Lin 8 were not necessarily engaging in cooperation with North Korean individuals, yet nevertheless found themselves at the mercy of DPRK authorities because of a unilaterally-imposed law applied in a way not recognized by international law.
Moving forward, Russian firms will need to become increasingly aware of the risks of conducting business in or near the DPRK due to the way Pyongyang applies laws even in such a tight maritime neighborhood.
An incident that has obviously irritated Russian officials and made headlines within the Russian Federation will likely stay in the background of any Russian firms seeking opportunities in or in the vicinity of the DPRK.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Russian embassy DPRK