North Korean fishing vessels, likely similar to the squid boat where the murders took place, pictured during a Russian operation to apprehend North Korea poachers in Russian waters in September. Photo: AFP/Russian Federal Security Service

One hundred and sixty one North Korean fishermen are expected to arrive in a Russian port today, where authorities are preparing criminal cases against the men on charges of opening fire on a Russian maritime patrol in a fatal incident earlier this week.

On Tuesday, a Russian border patrol vessel discovered two North Korean “schooners” and 11 motorboats fishing off the Yamato Bank, a shallow water area in the Sea of Japan that lies within the Russian exclusive economic zone.

After the Russians seized one of the vessels, another reacted by opening fire, according to Russian State agency RIA Novosti, quoting the FSB (Russian Security Service). It was not clear what kind of weapons were used.

In the shootout, three Russian border guards and nine poachers were injured, and one North Korean was killed. The Russians subsequently captured the vessels and detained their crews.

Following the incident, North Korea’s top diplomat in Moscow was summoned by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which expressed “serious concerns” over what had happened.

“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 release.

Pyongyang has so far not commented on the issue.

The captured North Koreans are reportedly en route to Russia’s Far East port of Nakhodka, where they are expected to arrive on Friday.

Fish fight

The incident highlighted the fraught relations between Russian and North Korea when it comes to their neighboring territorial waters. North Korean vessels reportedly often enter Russian waters on the pretext of sheltering from typhoons.

A similar incident had occurred less than two weeks earlier, when 12 North Korean vessels with 120 fishermen on board were detained for illegally fishing in Russian waters. And in July, a Russian fishing crew had been arrested by North Korean border guards – an incident that an angry Moscow dubbed “illegal.”

However, Tuesday’s incident, about which details are still emerging, was among the rare cases that have turned into gunfights.

According to Konstantin Asmolov, a Russian scholar who specializes in Korea, poachers have started behaving more aggressively following tougher measures recently implemented by Russian patrols.  “Our security forces have become tougher in order to respond to this. That provokes a tougher response from these criminals and results in more serious clashes” he told Russian news outlet Daily Storm.

Stanislav Standrik, former head of a state-owned fishing company Nazrybresurs, called the issue of poaching in the Russian Far East “never-ending,” due to the abundance of fish in Russian territorial waters compared with its neighbors. “We have red caviar, pollock, crabs and other valuable breeds,” he said in an interview carried by Russian media. “Other countries in the region have far less than we do.”

The Russian Far East is sparsely populated, unlike the neighboring countries of Japan, North Korea and South Korea, all of which have strong appetites for fish and rich traditions of marine cuisine.

An ocean of risk

Both experts warned that incidents of this kind could escalate. And it is not just Russia and North Korea that face escalatory risks over Northeast Asian fishing grounds.

Chinese vessels have clashed with Japanese coast guard crews off the disputed Diayou/Senkaku islands; there have been fatal incidents involving South Korean coast guard vessels and Chinese fishermen in the Yellow Sea.

There have also been patrol boat clashes between North and South Korean units in the rich crab fishing grounds in the Yellow Sea, where the maritime border is ill-defined. And fishermen from both Koreas have been detained on multiple occasions when fishing boats from one side enter, or drift into, the other’s waters.

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