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North Korea Bans Powered Fishing Boats

Posted January. 28, 2006 04:08,   


On January 2, the North Korean Workers’ Party banned the use of “Ttororegi” boats (wooden motor boats) for fishing. North Korean fishermen have had to use rowboats to fish ever since.

For the past 10 years, Ttororegis have been North Korea’s main fishing vessels. About five meters long and capable of seating three to four people, tens of thousands of Ttororegi equipped with four to five horsepower engines used to ply their trade along the East and West Sea coasts. Larger vessels are too expensive for North Korean fishermen to operate. Sometimes the boats drifted into South Korean territorial waters.

Lee Sung Ju, a fisherman from Nason, North Hamgyong Province, exploded in anger after learning of the ban, saying, “This is all because of the Russians.” Up until two years ago, he was a successful fisherman. He owned his own Ttororegi, and his fishing skills were good enough to earn him more than $1,000, yearly. During winter and spring, he harvested octopus and sea urchin, and in summer and autumn he caught cuttlefish for a living. His wife even graduated from a prestigious university.

Though often life threatening, fishing is one of the most highly profitable occupations in North Korea. Its popularity is roughly comparable to medicine in South Korea. It is said that the three best jobs in North Korea are public officials, fishermen, and women without husbands who often run profitable businesses.

Because marine products are easily sold to overseas consumers, North Korea’s move toward capitalization is beginning in its fishing industry. cuttlefish sells in the North at 30 percent of what it sells for in the South. Though approximately 10 percent of that is then surrendered to relevant authorities, there is no occupation more profitable in North Korea than fishing. It also helps that exporting institutions keep raising prices. Fishermen are popular as prospective bridegrooms in North Korea.

But Lee’s life took a turn for the worse last year. After setting out for a day of cuttlefish harvesting in July, his boat drifted off Vladivostok, where he was captured and treated as a spy by Russian officials. He was teased and told that it was impossible for him to have drifted so far in such a puny boat. They threw in him prison, where he met dozens of fellow North Korean fishermen who had been detained behind bars for the same reason.

When Russia sent Pyongyang its list of imprisoned fishermen, the North Korean government announced to their family members that they would have to pay 500,000 won ($200) to Russia each. Lee could only return after his family paid the fine.

Last December, Lee heard that the North Korean Coast Guard apprehended the Russian cargo vessel Ternei for illegal entry into North Korean territorial waters. Lee was pleased. “Good. We should pay them back,” he said.

Lee believes that the Ttororegi ban resulted from Russian complaints. Although he feels that innocent fishermen should not have to suffer the consequences, he has no choice but to keep fishing in a rowboat.