Asia’s Ahab: North Korea, Japan, and Environmental Geopolitics in NE Asia

People who fish, who brave the ocean, who create seriographie of fish, who take pictures of fish, who quantify fish populations — all of these people have a special place in my consciousness these days.   The recent wetness in Seattle, along with a return to the cello/axe in a downtown performance backed by giant Jules-Verne style organ pipes, has me thinking watery thoughts.

Captain Nemo at the Organ, from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea / Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers"

And lo and behold, what should cross the data transom but a couple of significant fish-related stories?

KNCA in Pyongyang has, of late, been preoccupied with incidents at sea, but also with finding creative ways to outsource the blame for North Korea’s lack of food.  Fisherman going further out than normal to find more protein sources have, if the Good Friends reports hold true, been getting blown away by the North Korean Coast Guard.

So who better to bring into play than the old Japanese colonial navy, and the antagonisms toward Japanese fishermen?  Take this weekend’s KCNA dispatch:

Japanese Imperialists’ Extortion of Marine Resources

Pyongyang, November 20 (KCNA) — The Japanese imperialists occupied Korea illegally in the early 20th century and plundered its rich marine resources at random. They fabricated and promulgated the laws and regulations for plundering marine resources and set up machinery for the purpose.  In order to ensure their pillage by law, the invaders promulgated the evil “Fishery Act”, its enforcement regulations and the like in June 1911.

According to the act, the Japanese imperialists preferentially gave the fishery right to the Japanese fishermen and fishery monopolies under their protection and forcibly robbed the Korean fishermen of their fishing ground….Following the fabrication of all evil laws and machinery, they left no stone unturned to extort the precious marine resources of Korea.

The pillage of the marine resources by the Japanese imperialists was intensified entering the 1930s. At that time, they forced the Korean fishermen to increase fish production under the pretext of “fishing village promotion campaign”.  [E.g., “Don’t blame us for working you hard during this new 100-day struggle campaign; you had it way worse under the Japanese.] In an attempt to realize their predatory ambition, the Japanese imperialists compelled Korean fishermen to deep-sea fishing with small wooden boats only to kill lots of them.

For the purpose of meeting the demand for ever growing military supplies, the Japanese imperialists were also hell bent on taking away sardine which amounted to 50 percent of the total fish catch in Korea at that time. The Korean fishermen had to live a miserable life owing to the Japanese imperialists’ brutal plunder of abundant marine resources.  The Japanese authorities must completely liquidate the crime-woven past.

Quite apart from the unintentional pun that caps it off, this is quite a document.  It furthers a stock theme in the North Korean discourse (hatred toward Japan) while turning this emotion of past victimization toward contemporary ends (muffling the grumbles about the 100-day campaign, justifying the lack of sea protein in the average diet [when in fact much squid is being sold off to the Chinese], and deflecting rumors about the North Korean navy shooting up the fishing fleet of DPRK citizens.)

"the Big Catch," by William Chua

And somehow living on a boat, waking up every day at a different sea level, gives me a deeper imagined connection to this topic.  In fact we share the same ocean, the Koreans and I!  But I have yet to catch any squid, and dry them, and sell them for peanuts to Dandong wholesalers…

View from the Nautilus

A second more logical sea-theme, a watery meme, a pelagic morpheme, can be found in my correspondence from this weekend.  I happened to be having some interaction with one Amanda Bradford, who is one of the world experts in Western Pacific Grey Whale populations and their migration patterns in Northeast Asia.  (For a more extensive look at her work within the matrix of DPRK environmental politics, a preliminary essay can be found here.)   Amanda notes in her 2003 University of Washington thesis — one of the few documents in the English language to discuss the Western grey whale and its transnational properties —  that political relations among Northeast Asian states have had a very significant impact on the whale population.

More recently, she notes:

Now that the western gray whale range states are not whaling (well, as far as we know, since nothing is known about North Korea), a big issue that has emerged is fatal entanglement in fishing gear in the migratory corridor (see attached paper).  So far, we only have information from Japan, but we suspect that it’s an issue along the Korean peninsula and China, also. [E-mail correspondence with the author, Nov. 20, 2009]

It would be nice if we could begin talking about North Korean-Japanese issues like these that are, quite literally, under the surface.  Fishing, water rights, and all the rest are of course issues in trans-Korean relations, but the DPRK dynamic with Japan could be significantly eased via cooperation in Track II style channels on issues of oceanic ecology as well.  I, for one, will be keeping my eyes open whether underwater or up here in the human world.

The mythical birth of Namor, the Submariner, may be read as allegory for underwater political reconciliation in NE Asia

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