Why North Korea's Crab Trade Is Worth Killing For

New reports suggest that the sudden execution of Kim Jong-un’s powerful uncle and his allies earlier this month followed a business dispute about blue crabs.

The New York Times reports that Jang appears to have gained control over a lucrative area known for clam and crab fishing after Kim loosened the military’s grip on North Korea’s resources.

Kim learned that his uncle was personally profiting off the shellfish and sent troops to take control again. When these troops were badly injured by Jang’s own troops, it was the final straw. A stronger force was sent, Jang was captured, and then put on trial and executed.

Executing someone for monopolizing crab fishing may seem severe, but in the wonky world of North Korea trade it makes some sense.

North Korea’s main export partner for crabs and most things is China, with more than $US11 billion in annual trade between the two countries. Crabs are considered a delicacy in China, and the kind found in North Korea are the most popular: “The fishermen capture the crab deep down, so it is high quality,” importer Qu Baojie tells the New York Times. “South Korea and Japan can’t compete.”

Notably, there have been numerous violent disputes (known as the “crab wars”) over North Korea’s fishing with the South due to the contentious sea border between the countries.

Back in 2011 the Financial Times’ Simon Rabinovitch called the crab trade a “a rare bright spot for the beleaguered economy” but added that “they are also a measure of how backwards it remains.” Chinese traders said they gave fishermen Rmb10,000 ($1,580) for a catch, and that most of the fishermen appeared to operate privately, in a semi-state sanctioned grey economy. While they didn’t seem to know where the money was going, Chinese traders had grown concerned about the trade, citing overfishing and the irregular hours of the North Korean fishermen (some took long periods off to mourn the death of Kim Jong-il).

Crabs might not seem like a big deal and it’s true that coal and other mineral deposits are bigger business for North Korea (the Times notes that coal may have also been a factor in Jang’s operations). But in a country with the economic woes of North Korea, it matters.

Thus while the official account called Jang a “traitor” who was “despicable human scum” and “worse than a dog,” North Korean officials seem to confirm the economic factors were the trigger with this statement:

“Even though Jang Song Thaek’s group caused great harm to our economy, there will be no change at all in the economic policy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Yun Yong-sok, a senior official in the State Economic Development Committee, told the Associated Press after the execution. “It’s just the same as before.”

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