The Philippines and South Korea signed a fisheries agreement at the recently concluded Asean-ROK Commemorative Summit in Busan. Asean, of course, is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while ROK or Republic of Korea is the formal name of South Korea. On the surface, there are many reasons to welcome the agreement. For one, it aims to promote cooperation between the signatory countries and open up the lucrative South Korean market to Philippine marine exports. But there is a backdrop to this story that gives it added dimension and raises regional security concerns, which has do with a country not party to the agreement, North Korea.
As we all know, North Korea is suffering from economic sanctions imposed to dissuade it from further developing its nuclear arsenal and other weapons of mass desctruction. Given its increasing isolation, the regime in Pyongyang has resorted to desperate measures in funding its war programs. For starters, North Korea ceded its fishing rights along its coastal water and other areas to China.
Crowded out of their traditional waters, North Korean fishermen have been going farther out into Japan, Russia and, of course, South Korea. Just last month, the South China Morning Post reported that the Japanese Coast Guard rescued some 60 North Koreans, whose fishing boats were sunk for suspicion of illegally fishing within Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The same story reported that in 2018, Japan issued more than 5,300 warnings to North Korean fishing vessels found in Japanese territory. Similar incursions by North Koreans have been reported in Russia.
Of course, South Korea is also feeling the impact of Pyongyang’s desperation. Arirang news network, for instance, has reported on the plumetting squid stocks, which was blamed on overfishing along the Northern Line Limit or NLL that serves as the maritime border between South and North Korea. Apparently, Pyongyang’s deal with China allows the Chinese to fish around that area. The result is about $80 million worth of squid stock possibly lost to South Korean consumers. For sure, other marine resources are also affected. No wonder they are turning to Southeast Asia for seafood.
The South Koreans cannot turn northward, not just because they fear Pyongyang’s Navy.
Rather, North Koreans have reportedly overfished their own waters, according to media reports. Experts believe that it may take years for those fishing grounds to recover.
One theory why North Koreans are pushed hard to trespass into foreign waters is that they face an acute food shortage at home. It seems, however, that the people’s need for food is secondary to the North Korean regime’s needs for cash, presumably for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Certainly, the Chinese do not want North Korea to develop nuclear weapons either, but it does have 1.4 billion mouths to feed.
The Philippines, too, is under pressure to feed a large and growing population. That is precisely why foreign fishermen entering the West Philippine Sea is big news locally. It is a proven fishing area, and it has been historically so for Filipinos, Chinese and others in Southeast Asia. Remember that the West Philippine Sea, the local name for the South China Sea, has territorities claimed by Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia as well as China and the Philippines.
It may only be a matter of time when the North Koreans are drawn to regional fishing grounds. We should not dismiss that possibility, only because of the distance. Note that they are so desperate that not even aggressive countermeasures from the Japanese Coast Guard and Russian Navy scare them.
For our part, the Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine Navy don’t seem as imposing. The good news is that the Duterte government has been beefing up our maritime forces, but realistically, naval modernization takes time.
It is also good news that the Philippines and South Korea are expanding bilateral ties and that Seoul recognizes the importance of the Asean as an economic and strategic partner.
The concerns over fisheries and food security are too big for any one country to handle.
Perhaps together with the Asean and other allies, we can craft meaningful solutions.