By Mike Firn
North Korea has been orchestrating a surge in squid poaching in Japanese waters, as the country's fishermen take drastic measures to counter food shortages.
The past 11 months have seen a four fold increase in the number of North Korean squid fishing boats spotted near Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone – the area 200 nautical miles from Japan's coast.
Japan's fisheries agency and coast guard said that 400 squid boats were seen between January and November this year – up from 110 last year. Ninety per cent of those ships entered the zone in the Sea of Japan, 230 miles from the Japanese and North Korean coasts.
Markings on the boats show that most belong to the North Korean military.
Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, used his New Year's speech to call for efforts to boost the fishing industry, praising the involvement of the country's military.
"The sector should follow the example of the fishing sector of the People's Army that landed a huge haul of fishes by carrying out the order of the Supreme Commander unto death," said Mr Kim.
Almost a year ago Mr Kim was photographed visiting a squid processing factory, and state media reported that "he couldn't hold back joy or stop smiling" when told that the country's fish production had dramatically increased this year, leading him to "highly praise" the factory manager as a "hero".
In June a North Korean defector told Daily NK: "There is also a saying in North Korea: 'squid keeps the people alive.' This is how much people worry that they may starve if they miss the chance to fish [for squid\."
But beside burnishing national pride, the rise in poaching may be a sign of food shortages and economic hardship in North Korea.
The World Food Programme is currently feeding 2.4 million women and children in North Korea.
"People are highly vulnerable to shocks and seasonal variations as these often mean reduced access to food, leaving the most vulnerable children and women with no other option than to reduce their food intake," the WFP states.
But food shortages in North Korea are nothing new. In the 1990s a famine killed up to five per cent of the pre-crisis population.
"The economy has been bad for decades," said Robert Dujarric, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
"It could be getting worse or maybe its just a way to get more hard currency."
Japan has the power to seize foreign vessels fishing in its waters without permission. Fisheries Agency patrols normally warn unauthorised boats entering the Exclusive Economic Zone using loud speakers or signs.
"Japanese coast guard and naval capabilities are far stronger," said Mr Dujarric.
"China won't come to the DPRK's help so its fairly easy for Japan to accept escalation".
Relations between Pyongyang and Tokyo have worsened after Japan backed a United Nations resolution this month condemning North Korea's human rights record.