A North Korean patrol boat intercepted the Russian yacht Katalexa on June 16 and towed it into North Korea’s Rason port until the Russian embassy intervened to have the three crew and the vessel released.

The vessel, which was sailing to Vladivostok after wintering in Taiwan and having repairs in Japan, arrived back in its home port on June 19.

The Katalexa was stopped just 50 kilometers from the Russian sea border by the North Koreans, who claimed it was acting suspiciously and had entered the territorial waters of North Korea. The crew denied this.

Russia’s ambassador in North Korea Alexander Matsegora intervened with the assistance of general consul Yuri Bochkarev and Ivan Tonkikh, the local representative of Russian firm RosonKonTrans in Rason.

“I spoke with the captain of the yacht, Alexander Sidorenko, and he said that the Koreans were polite, attentive, and the crew are all fine,” the head of Vladivostok’s Alye Parusa yacht club, Artem Moiseenkov, told Asia Times.

“They didn’t even have time to get frightened. They just didn’t understand why they had been detained. The border patrol apologised for the detention. As far as I know, the crew has no gripes.”

The detention of the yacht won’t impact Russia-North Korea relations, said Konstantin Asmolov, an academic at the Center for Korean Research at the Institute of the Far East.

“The embassy got involved quickly and the whole incident was resolved in less than 24 hours. The North Korean officials also acted correctly, didn’t try to make up any charges and there was no physical coercion. So, I don’t think this will lead to further consequences,” Asmolov told Asia Times. 

The incident is not the first involving Russian vessels and North Korea.

On May 13, 2016, a North Korean maritime border patrol detained the Russian yacht Elfin, which was returning to Primorsky Krai after a competition in South Korea. As with the latest incident, there were no serious diplomatic consequences.

Back in 1977, the North Koreans announced a 200-sea mile economic zone around its borders. Although most countries do not recognize the zone as legitimate, the North Koreans use it to keep foreign vessels away from the shores of the secluded country.

In February 2008, the merchant ship Lida Demesh was en route from the Japanese port of Hamada to Vladivostok with a cargo of used cars when it ran into a storm off the Korean coast.

It sought shelter nearer to shore, but this was near the Musudan Cape, the site of North Korea’s Tonghae Satellite Launch Ground. The vessel was apprehended by a fleet of patrol boats, which boarded the merchant ship.

The same happened a year later to the cargo ship Omski-122, which also sailed closer to shore in bad weather. In both cases, the Russian seamen were were later released.

North Korea also regularly detains Chinese vessels near its shores and usually demands payment of a fine for their return.