Boats full of dead people from North Korea keep showing up in Japan -- here's why

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Photo: Ed Jones/ AFP/ Getty Images.
  • Dozens of ships containing dead bodies have washed up in Japan recently.
  • All the evidence indicates that the “ghost ships” are coming from North Korea.
  • It isn’t a new phenomenon, but is happening more and more often.
  • One expert told BI it could be because of food scarcity in North Korea.

Dozens of dead bodies have mysteriously washed up on Japan’s shores over the past few weeks – and all the evidence points to North Korea.

At least 40 corpses from around 15 boats have washed up along Japan’s west coast since November, according to figures from Japanese authorities and calculated by Business Insider.

The most recent discovery was made on Thursday, when authorities found two skeletons near an upturned boat near the western city of Oga, according to the Washington Post.

While Japanese authorities haven’t been able to definitively identify the origins of these “ghost ships” – vessels discovered with no living crew – multiple factors suggest that they are from North Korea.

One of the boats, found on the island of Sado around November 26 contained what appeared to be North Korean cigarette packets and jackets with Korean writing on them.

Two bodies recovered from another boat in Yamagata prefecture on Tuesday were also wearing pins showing the face of Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un, according to Japanese news agency Kyodo and the Associated Press.

Most of the discoveries have been gruesome: Japanese authorities reportedly found skulls and decaying corpses in multiple cases.

Not a new phenomenon

North Korean vessels have been showing up in Japan for years.

Eighty such ships drifted ashore in Japan in 2013, 65 in 2014, 45 in 2015, and 66 in 2016, said Satoru Miyamoto, a political science and economics professor at Japan’s Seigakuin University, citing Japan Coast Guard statistics.

But the trend appears to have worsened this year: at least 76 vessels have showed up on Japanese shores since the beginning of 2017, 28 of which in November alone, The New York Times reported.

These appearances most frequently occur toward the end of the year, when bad weather proves most dangerous to seafarers using old boats and equipment, the Times said.

So why is this happening?

Life in North Korea is “grim and desperate”

The rising number of ghost ships in Japan indicates the dire food insecurity facing North Korea, some experts say.

Professor Jeffrey Kingston, the director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan, told Business Insider: “The ghost ships are a barometer for the state of living conditions in North Korea – grim and desperate.

“They signal both desperation and the limits of ‘juche,'” he added, using the word for an ideology developed by Kim Il Sung, which justifies state policies despite famine and economic difficulties within the country.

To make matters worse, North Korea suffered a severe drought earlier this year, which dramatically damaged the country’s food production and will likely result in further food shortages,the United Nations said in July.

While the exact extent of crop damage remains unclear, the UN said the areas accounting for two-thirds of North Korea’s main cereal production had been severely affected.

Earlier this year, a North Korean soldier who was shot while defecting to the south was found with a large number of parasites in his stomach – suggestive of a widespread health crisis gripping the country, The Washington Post reported.

Seo Yu Suk, a research manager at the North Korean Studies Institution in Seoul, also told Reuters: “North Korea pushes so hard for its people to gather more fish so that they can make up their food shortages.”

Professor Kingston added: “These rickety vessels are unsuitable for the rough seas of the Sea of Japan in autumn, and one imagines that far more are capsizing that we will never know about.”

… Or are they a sign of a booming North Korean economy?

Not all agree with the above assessment, however.

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, an editor at North Korean Economy Watch, told BI: “It’s unclear to what degree it’s directly related to food shortages per se.

“If fishers are ordered out for longer periods of time, with bigger demands on the catch they bring back – and with less gasoline with them than they need, due to the sanctions and shortages – that is certainly a connection of sorts.

“It is also possible that to make the same level of revenue through selling seafood domestically – which seems to be the best option given that they cannot export their products to China through formal ways due to current sanctions on seafood imports from North Korea – they would simply need to make bigger catches.”

The UN Security Council, of which China is a member, unanimously imposed sanctions on North Korean seafood and other commodities this August in response to two missile tests Pyongyang conducted the month before.

It’s unclear this point how much sanctions have affected the North Korean food situation or economy, however.

Katzeff Silberstein said: “Though the economy overall is under pressure from sanctions, food prices have not gone up to the degree that some may have expected, which suggests that there isn’t any acute scarcity as of now.

“On the other hand, there have been anecdotal reports of food scarcity increasing, particularly in the northeastern parts of the country, near the border to China, where agriculture is not at all as widely spread as in the southern regions.”

Miyamoto, the Seigakuin University professor, even said the rise in North Korean fishing vessels in Japan is indicative of a booming North Korean economy – because seafood is a luxury item.

He told BI: “Many North Korean vessels are in the Sea of Japan because North Korea has promoted fishery policy since 2013.

“They are fishermen [trying] to earn money. Now North Korean economics, which adopted free market partly, have grown, and generated a wealthy class. A wealthy class demands not caloric food, but healthy food. So seafood, which are healthy, is popular in North Korea. […]

“It is evidence not that the North Korean economy is deteriorating, but that the North Korean economy is growing… Hungry people demand not seafood which are low-calorie, but cereal and meat which are high-calorie.”

He also told CNN the “ghost ship” phenomenon increased “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.

“It will continue.”

Japan’s response

The increased appearance of the vessels have reignited fears among some Japanese citizens who remain haunted by the spate of kidnappings that occurred along Japan’s west coast in the 1970s and 1980s.

When eight (living) men, claiming to be North Korean fishermen, turned up at the coastal city of Yurihonjo two weeks ago, local newspaper Akita Sakigake Shimpo ran the headline: “Are they North Korean spies?” (They are not, local police told The New York Times.)

Pyongyang’s nuclear development programme and recent missile tests have also increased Japanese suspicion toward North Korea.

Kingston, of Temple University, said: “Given recent missile and hydrogen bomb tests, public anxieties and anger towards North Korea has increased, so sympathy for the ghost ship crews has been limited.”

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.