Chinese “dark fleets” have been fishing in North Korean waters in violation of United Nations sanctions, earning the Hermit Kingdom millions of dollars in illicit fees, maritime experts warned this week.
In several reports, including one published in the Science Advances journal on Wednesday, over a dozen researchers from various maritime and fisheries groups used a system of artificial intelligence to track so-called “dark fleets,” a term for boats that can avoid public monitoring systems.
Global Fishing Watch said in a statement these fleets are suspected of repeatedly fishing in North Korean waters from 2017 to 2019, catching nearly half a billion dollars worth of fish, around as much as the total catch by South Korean and Japanese fishermen combined.
“Hundreds of large, industrial vessels originating from China likely violated United Nations (U.N.) sanctions and caught almost half a billion dollars worth of Pacific flying squid,” the group said in a statement. Although North Korea would not directly receive that money, it would take a sizeable chunk through the selling of fishing rights, providing the regime with an additional estimated $120 million in 2018 alone.
According to researchers, at least 900 such ships were observed in 2017 and over 700 were tracked in 2018 and 2019 respectively. China has denied accusations that the boats are sailing out on their orders, claiming that sophisticated evasion tactics used by ships made it very hard to catch those involved in illegal fishing.
The presence of large Chinese vessels has pushed North Korean fishermen out of the country’s territorial waters, forcing them to travel further afield in order to make significant catches. This has led to many ships crossing into Russian waters, leading to legal clashes with Russian authorities.
The report warned that North Korean fishermen risked “starvation and death” in embarking on such voyages, pointing out that their wooden vessels were “severely under-equipped for the long-distance travel.”
Last year, reports also asserted that Japanese authorities had expelled 300 North Korean boats attempting to poach squid from within their territorial waters. Eventually, coast guard officials deployed patrol boats armed with water cannons after many ignored their warnings.
China, which remains North Korea’s closest ally, has long shown a blatant disregard for international sanctions against Kim Jong-un’s Stalinist dictatorship. Chinese ships have also regularly been caught shipping coal from North Korea, providing another source of income for Pyongyang.
Both China and Russia have also repeatedly lobbied the U.N. Security Council to lift sanctions against the regime, imposed in response to the country’s nuclear weapons program. The measures represent the strictest sanctions imposed on a government multilaterally in the history of the Security Council and are understood to have further crippled the North Korean economy.