About the Author
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.
According to a press release issued by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on Tuesday, two North Korean schooners were detained off the coast of the Kito-Yamato sandbar within Russia’s exclusive economic zone. Members of the FSB’s border security division were carrying out a routine patrol when they detained the vessels.
Accompanying the two schooners were several smaller vessels. One schooner contained a crew of 21 individuals, while the other was crewed by over 45 people. Members of the second schooner opened fire on an FSB boarding party, injuring three officers.
The FSB detained the schooners for transportation to the port city of Nakhodka. Meanwhile, a total of 80 North Korean citizens are said to be in detention.
In response to the incident, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called in the DPRK’s charge d’affaires in Moscow for an explanation.
Likewise, the foreign ministry, having admonished the North Korean government that it would take any measures necessary to enforce the law in its waters, requested that Pyongyang do its part to prevent such incidents from happening again.
The clash between North Korean poachers and Russian law enforcement comes only two months after DPRK authorities detained a crew of 15 Russians and two South Korean nationals for an alleged violation of North Korean territorial waters.
During the brief row over the detention of Russian citizens, one Russian diplomatic official expressed the belief that the situation would blow over quickly due to the strong relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang.
It is unlikely that North Korean officials were completely unaware of the activities of as many as 80 of its citizens
In light of the most recent incident, voices within Russia’s academic and policy communities have warned against letting criminal acts derail the upward political trajectory of DPRK-Russia ties.
One prominent Russian sinologist, Alexei Maslov, cautioned against letting what he called an act of “piracy” spoil North Korea-Russia relations, declaring that the best thing for Russia to do would be to extradite the detainees back to the DPRK to face justice.
Thanks precisely to the progression of Moscow-Pyongyang relations, repatriation to face justice remains a very real possibility for the detained North Koreans. In February of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law an extradition agreement between the Russian Federation and North Korea.
The agreement allows for a citizen of one of the countries who has been sentenced to a prison term to be extradited to their country of citizenship to serve out their sentence.
Furthermore, the agreement stipulates that an appropriate sentence for those convicted will be carried out by the receiving country in accordance with that state’s laws.
That fact may be of cold comfort to the North Korean crew, particularly anyone found guilty of participating directly in the violence against FSB agents.
Andrei Klimov, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament’s upper house, stated that the perpetrators could face the death penalty if they are indeed extradited to the DPRK.
“I’m under the impression that if those guys were in Pyongyang’s hands, they’d be shot,” Klimov declared.
Klimov, however, was also quick to caution against letting the situation develop in a way that could have a wider negative impact on the North Korea-Russia relationship.
In addition to acknowledging that poaching was often one of the only ways for families to support themselves, Klimov warned that other countries may see this as a golden opportunity to drive a wedge between Moscow and Pyongyang.
“The irritation between us and North Korea is working in favor of many, and those ‘many’ are not friends of Russia” said Klimov.
An incident involving large-scale poaching as well as an armed attack on law enforcement officials will not likely go unpunished. As such, the fallout from the detention of the two fishing crews could well put the vitality of the extradition agreement – as well as Moscow-Pyongyang ties themselves – to the test.
Indeed, the strength of DPRK-Russia ties may have played a part in the relatively quick resolution of the detention of the Russian crew last July.
Yet given the nature of this most recent development, the stakes are higher.
This particular development will be a small yet significant test of how strong the overall DPRK-Russia relationship really is
One aspect that the most recent maritime incident underscores is the difficulties North Korea and Russia could face in future bilateral as well as multilateral economic cooperation.
Fishing comprises one of the “nine bridges” of cooperation between Russia and South Korea as part of the latter’s “New Northern Policy.” The New Northern Policy, though at present focused primarily on deepening collaboration between Moscow and Seoul, also envisions bringing the DPRK into the fold.
For the second time in two years, North and South Korean officials were present at the 2019 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia.
How Pyongyang reacts to a development such as the detention of a large number of citizens for poaching as well as armed violence could shape how the Kremlin perceives the feasibility of economic cooperation with the DPRK, particularly in a maritime context.
The incident likewise highlights the question of to what extent the DPRK can be a reliable partner for the Russian Federation in areas beyond those on which Moscow and Pyongyang mutually agree, such as denuclearization.
Of course, no country can prevent its citizens from engaging in illegal acts outside of its jurisdiction.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that North Korean officials were completely unaware of the activities of as many as 80 of its citizens, even in the openness of the high seas.
One of the major tests for North Korea-Russia relations, therefore, is the extent to which Pyongyang is willing to cooperate with Moscow to enforce maritime laws.
A North Korean state feeling increased financial pressure from sanctions might possibly not be interested in curbing illegal activities that also provide a source of income.
Yet a Russian government intent on economically developing the Russian Far East would in turn be hard-pressed to turn a blind eye to criminal activities occurring in its economic waters, even in the name of international friendship.
Moscow and Pyongyang may be in relative agreement over the best way to proceed in the DPRK security crisis, but this particular development will be a small yet significant test of how strong the overall DPRK-Russia relationship really is beyond diplomatic platitudes.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: The Kremlin