Firefight on the Russia-North Korea sea border

Poachers' boats are pictured during the Russian border guards' operation. Credit: AFP / Russian Federal Security Service

Three Russian guards patrolling territorial waters have been injured following an attack by North Korean sailors on 16 August. The sailors were accused by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSS) of illegally crossing the border into Russian waters.

FSS officers were detaining 13 ships, including 2 racketeering ships and 11 motor boats, in the Sea of Japan, when North Korean sailors opened fire on them. In total, 56 North Korean sailors were involved in the incident. Reports of North Korean ships illegally crossing the border have risen in the past year from the FSS and the Russia’s Federal Customs Service. Most of these ships were believed to be fishing boats, posing no danger. This is the first time North Korean sailors were confirmed to be carrying firing arms.

“We demand from the Korean side that comprehensive measures be taken in order to prevent other similar incidents,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement following the incident. There are hundreds of Northern Korean boats at the territorial waters of Russia’s Far East, the Primorsk region fishermen association said in a statement earlier this year. Most of these ships are poachers illegally catching squid and fish.

They throw out nets on the navigation channels, which could be caught by propellers of commercial ships. Moreover, North Korean sailors have been reported to act aggressively, and has been the cause of several conflicts with Russian fishermen over the past years, the Primorsk fishermen association said.

In October 2016 the conflict with North Korean poachers resulted in the injury of six officers of the Russia’s customs service. Russia’s law enforcement agencies had to engage special-operation forces, injuring nine North Korean sailors and killing one.

North Korean fishermen are in a desperate situation because of a food shortage in the country, commented Vasily Golovin, a local shipping industry analyst. Fishing in Russia’s territorial waters is especially key source of food, becoming the only way of getting some means to exist.

This is driving desperate and often violent behaviour in the North Korean fishermen, with some known to carry automatic weapons, which deters customs officers from dealing with them, and intimidates commercial ships and fishermen, according to Golovin. There have also been reports of North Korean fishermen illegally entering the territorial waters of Japan.