On Dec. 5, two empty wooden boats were found adrift in waters near Niigata Prefecture in Japan.
Soon the Japanese Coast Guard also detected two dead bodies presumed to be from the boats.
It was just a mere day after three decomposed bodies were found off the coast of Sakata in the adjacent Yamagata Prefecture. Remains of eight people were found in a boat grounded on a beach in Akita Prefecture a week before that.
Although the dead couldn’t talk, small details such as a lapel pin or cigarettes showed where they had come from: North Korea.
Twenty-eight such cases were reported in the waters near Japan last month, some of them carrying people who were still alive.
Every year 40 to 85 North Korean boats wash up on Japanese northern coasts. But the November tally, which tops a previous monthly record of 21 in January 2014, is unusual.
Experts attribute the recent spike to a result of the United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed on the rogue nation coupled with the current growing trend towards capitalism.
“It seems (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un has been focusing on the fishing industry and pressuring North Korean citizens to produce results,” Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies told The Korea Herald.
“But with its poor infrastructure combined with the dire effect of the current sanctions, some are pushed over the edge,” he added, referring to the poorly equipped boats that are easily pulled off course by strong currents and southwesterly winds if their engines fail.
“There are also personal ambitions involved in the matter, as its citizens are now interested in making more personal gains after Kim Jong-un adopted a new pro-market economic structure,” Lee said.
Whether it is by force or of their own volition, more of these North Korean ghost ships are expected to haunt the waters and shores of Japan as fishing may be one of the few economic options left for Pyongyang, which has been burdened by a series of sanctions.
Japan’s NHK reported Friday a group of 10 North Korean crew members told the Coast Guard that they were trying to meet the fishing quota assigned by the North Korean military. The fishermen were found on Nov. 28, near Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, packed in a boat labeled “the 854th military unit of the Korean People’s Army.”
“Since (Kim Jong-un rose to power), fishermen have been frantically trying to meet (annual) catch goals, but what’s different this year is that they are traveling to distant waters in their fragile boats,” Pyon Jin-il, a leading North Korea watcher and writer based in Japan, told AFP.
“North Korea last year sold part of its fishing rights in the Yellow Sea to China to get foreign currency, so their fishermen have been kicked out of the western part of their waters,” he said.
The rogue state is also reported to have sold fishing rights in the East Sea to China. An annual revenue of $75 million is raked for Kim Jong-un, Yonhap reported in August, citing unidentified intelligence sources.
Most of the hard currency earned through such deals, are believed to fund its weapons program and military power while ordinary North Korean citizens suffer from lack of food and other basic necessities.
On Nov. 29, Pyongyang test-fired what experts view as a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, signaling a technological advance in its missile program. Government officials here and in the US have warned that North Korea’s weapons program is “near completion.”
Meanwhile, Japan has decided to bolster its sea patrols around its maritime border.
“The coast guard and police have to cooperate to step up sea patrols around Japan,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a recent press briefing.
“The government intends to improve this to ensure we can guard against suspicious boats or people arriving in Japan.”
By Jung Min-kyung (firstname.lastname@example.org