North Korean ‘ghost ships’ keep washing up on the shores of Japan

Korean writing on a cigarette package on a wooden boat that washed ashore with eight corpses inside on northwestern Japan’s Miyazawa Beach in Oga, Dec. 4, 2017. The boat was just one of 76 fishing vessels, many bearing signs that they came from North Korea, that have ended up on Japanese shores since the beginning of the year, 28 of them in November alone. (Ko Sasaki/The New York Times)
Ko Sasaki/New York Times
Some of the items found on one of 76 fishing vessels, many bearing signs that they came from North Korea, that have ended up on Japanese shores since the beginning of the year, 28 of them in November alone.

TOKYO — Three more empty boats were found along Japan’s west coast on Thursday, a day when the snow and the rain made sure the temperature never really rose above freezing. Two bodies reduced to skeletons were found near one, which was upturned on the shore near the city of Oga.

Another, much bigger boat, was found not far away. And the third, bearing Korean writing, was caught in fishing nets near Sado Island, just off the west coast.

The previous day, an equally freezing Wednesday, a rickety old wooden boat which also bore a sign written in Korean was found bucking around in the rough seas. Found nearby: two dead bodies.


Another body, mostly just bones, was found up the coast in Akita prefecture Tuesday, and before that, three bodies were found near a wooden boat — two of them wearing pins showing the face of Kim Il Sung, the “Eternal President” of North Korea.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Almost every day for the last month, grisly discoveries like these have been made all along Japan’s western coastline, across the sea from North Korea. One boat even had a slogan in Korean declaring: ‘‘September is a boat accident prevention month.’’

North Korean ‘‘ghost ships’’ had previously washed ashore from time to time, but the sudden spike over the last month — there were a record 28 in November, compared with only four the previous November, according to the coast guard — has many people here wondering what is going on? And does it tell us something about the state of North Korea?

As with so many things about North Korea, it’s difficult to know for sure. But many analysts think it’s a reflection of food shortages, which in turn are the result of tougher sanctions on North Korea imposed to punish the regime for its continued nuclear defiance.

‘‘North Korean fishermen have to work harder than ever before and they have to go further out into the sea, but they don’t have new boats,’’ said Atsuhito Isozaki, associate professor of North Korean studies at Keio University.


Most of the boats washed up in Japan are about 32 feet long and wooden so they have trouble withstanding the rough winter seas. Many of the bodies are decomposed or just skeletons, likely a reflection of the storms and difficult seas in the area in October.

‘‘Plus, North Korea doesn’t have enough gasoline anymore so they’re running out of fuel,’’ Isozaki said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been aggressively promoting fishing as a growth industry and started this year by ordering a ‘‘dynamic drive for catching fish’’ with ‘‘modern fishing vessels.’’

‘‘Fishing boats are like warships, protecting the people and the motherland. Fish are like bullets and artillery shells,’’ the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, wrote in an editorial last month. Winter fishing was an ‘‘important battle’’ to meet annual seafood quotas, the paper said.

North Korea’s seafood exports to China grew by a whopping 75 percent between 2015 and 2016, hitting $190 million last year, according to figures from the South’s trade promotion agency. This made it one of North Korea’s biggest sources of revenue.


But in August, in response to the launch of North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles, the UN Security Council banned seafood exports from the rogue state. The following month it slapped limits on the amount of refined petroleum products that could be exported to North Korea, all part of a strategy to make the regime think twice about pursuing nuclear weapons.

While it is still too early to see the full effect of those sanctions — and the extent to which neighboring China is implementing them— analysts said they do appear to be causing North Korea some pain already.

‘‘Fishermen usually have a set quota and they used to sell the seafood to China,’’ said Toshimitsu Shigemura, emeritus professor at Waseda University. ‘‘Now with the new sanctions, they can’t sell the seafood overseas but the quota still exists so fishermen need to go fishing. They probably stay out too long to catch more fish.’’

North Korea is reported to have sold the fishing rights along its coast to China so, to meet their quotas, North Koreans appear to be fishing illegally in the Yamato shallows, a rich fishing ground inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. If they run out of fuel, the strong northwesterly winds from China will blow them towards the Japanese coast.

Others say the increasing number of fishermen washing up in Japan might be evidence of food shortages in North Korea, with fishermen pushing themselves to extremes in search of a good catch.

‘‘The food situation is getting worse, so fishing is encouraged in order to fulfill people’s needs,’’ said Sotetsu Ri, a North Korea expert at Ryukoku University. ‘‘Fishing is one way to deal with the economic situation.’’