Mysterious boats, thought to belong to fishermen, have been beaching on Japanese shores for some years now. Known as “ghost ships,” these vessels have been appearing with increasing frequency since 2013. And 33 ships were discovered, either beached or stranded in Japanese water, in November 2017 alone, all of them on the western coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu.
The two prefectures on Honshu’s west coast where these fishing boats tend to appear are Akita and Ishikawa. These regions overlook the Sea of Japan. Across that sea, more than 500 miles distant, lies the eastern coast of North Korea. And that, it seems, is where these ghost boats originate.
In one incident in November 2017, eight North Korean fishermen were found ashore near a harbor in Akita prefecture. Their wooden vessel had drifted ashore in the city of Yurihonjo. The severely damaged ship was found near the shipwrecked men, who were lucky to be alive.
It’s quite rare for live North Korean fishermen to be found on Japanese territory. Those found at Yurihonjo city were the first since 2015. They told Japanese authorities they had been fishing in the Sea of Japan for squid, but their boat had developed a problem. Consequently, they drifted on currents to the Japanese coast.
There’s no doubt that these fishermen rescued by the Japanese were extremely fortunate. Their fate could have been far worse. Also in November 2017, on Monday 27, another boat, this time a fully fledged ghost ship, was washed ashore. When Japanese officials examined the 23-foot vessel, they made a gruesome find.
On board this particular ship, which beached near the city of Oga in Akita province, were eight crew members. All of them were dead, with some of the bodies reduced to nothing more than skeletal remains. And the preceding weekend had seen the discovery of two more bodies on Sado Island. The bodies had possessions with North Korean branding.
Subsequently, the death toll from this macabre list of maritime tragedies just keeps on mounting. A ship that washed ashore at Kagami City on December 12, 2017, brought the total of ghost ships landing on the Japanese coast to 83 for the year. And that was the second ship that had appeared on that very day.
When the police and coast guard officers went to investigate the boat that had landed on the shore by Katagami City, in Akita province, they made yet another harrowing discovery. It had two bodies, which had clearly been dead for some time, aboard. The clothing on one of the bodies had a badge with the face of the late Kim Jong-il, former North Korean leader and father of the current dictator, Kim Jong-un.
In what was a tragic early December, other finds included a boat that beached at the Kashiwazaki City in Niigata province, another prefecture overlooking the Sea of Japan, located across the sea from North Korea. That 35-foot boat had a corpse aboard, and this unfortunate was wearing a badge showing Korea’s first dictator, Kim Il-sung, grandfather of Kim Jong-un.
And what is the reaction of the North Korean regime to this spate of ghost ships? In fact, its response is compete silence. Authorities there have never publicly acknowledged the death of their citizens.
This refusal by North Korea to admit that anything untoward is happening is causing headaches for the Japanese authorities. The bodies of 18 North Koreans landed on Japanese shores in November alone. The Japanese obviously have to deal with these bodies – and they want to do so with respect.
In common with many nations, Japan does not have formal diplomatic relations with the North Korean regime. Which is hardly surprising since many of the notorious missile tests that North Korea has carried out have landed in the Sea of Japan. This makes it difficult for the Japanese to negotiate the return of human remains to North Korea. And the fact that many of these bodies are in advanced states of decay makes it difficult to identify therm.
Despite the lack of formal communication, the Red Cross does operate in both countries. On occasion, the North Korean Red Cross has asked for the return of the remains of bodies found on ghost ships. Indeed, the North Korean Red Cross has asked for the return of the eight bodies found on the vessel that beached at Oga, mentioned earlier. But as far as we know Japan has not returned the ashes of the bodies yet.
It turns out those bodies were in fact cremated, and the ashes were taken to the Zen Buddhist Temple of Tousenji. Speaking to the New York Times, a priest at the temple, Ryosen Kojima, said, “They are humans just like us. But they have no one to look after their ashes. Since they were born into this world, they must have parents and families. I feel so sorry for them.”
But what is driving this mounting number of North Korean ghost ships beaching on the western coastal provinces of Japan? The answer may well lie with the increasing pressure that the North Korean regime is feeling because of the economic sanctions imposed on it by the United Nations. These sanctions are a punishment from the international community for North Korea’s highly controversial nuclear program.
As a consequence, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has personally pushed for increased fishing by the North Korean fleet. Speaking to CNN, Satoru Miyamoto, a North Korean expert at Japan’s Seigakuin University, said, “It’s after Kim Jong-un decided to expand the fisheries industry as a way of increasing revenue for the military. They are using old boats manned by the military, by people who have no knowledge about fishing.” This has proved to be a recipe for disaster.
One specific U.N. Security Council sanction against North Korea bans the selling of seafood catches abroad. Describing the plight of North Korean fishermen to CNN, Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics said, “They’re having to rendezvous with foreign vessels in international waters to sell their catches on the high sea so it can be relabeled [as from Japan or South Korea].”
Asia Press journalist Jiro Ishimaru told the New York Times that North Korean fishermen had to sail into especially treacherous waters in the Sea of Japan to catch squid. He said that on the North Korean coast overlooking the Sea of Japan, “There are fishing villages known as ‘widows’ villages,’ …Many people don’t return.”
And the unfortunate fishermen of North Korea are under severe pressure from their own government. Robert King, who was previously the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, told CNN, “If they [the fishermen] don’t catch what they’re supposed to, if they’re behind, if they lose control of the boat, they will be punished.”
And we can get a further chilling idea of the North Korean regime’s attitude towards the country’s fishing industry from an editorial in Rodong Sinmun, the official government newspaper. “Fishing boats are like warships, protecting the people and the motherland. Fish are like bullets and artillery shells,” the paper proclaimed. It sounds like North Korean fishermen may well have to continue paying for their government’s polices with their lives.