Dozens of bodies have mysteriously washed up on Japan’s shores over the past few weeks — and the evidence suggests they’re coming from North Korea.
At least 40 corpses from about 15 boats have washed up along Japan’s west coast since November, according to figures provided by Japanese authorities and calculated by Business Insider.
The most recent discovery was on Dec. 7, when authorities found two skeletons near an upturned boat near the western city of Oga, The Washington Post reported.
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 they are from North Korea.
A boat found on the island of Sado in late November contained what appeared to be North Korean cigarette packets and jackets with Korean writing on them, Reuters reported.
Two bodies recovered from another boat found in Yamagata prefecture on Dec. 5 were also wearing pins showing the face of Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, according to the Japanese news agency Kyodo and The Associated Press.
Most of the discoveries have been gruesome — in multiple cases, Japanese authorities have said they found skulls and decaying corpses.
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 professor of political science and economics at Japan’s Seigakuin University, citing Japan Coast Guard statistics.
But at least 76 vessels have shown up on Japanese shores since the beginning of this year, and 28 in November alone, The New York Times reported.
These appearances usually occur more frequently 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 scarcity facing North Korea, some experts say.
Jeffrey Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan, told Business Insider that “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 that justifies state policies despite famine and economic difficulties within the country.
To make matters worse, North Korea suffered a severe drought earlier this year that dramatically damaged the country’s food production and is likely to result in further food shortages, the United Nations said in July.
While the extent of the crop damage remains unclear, the UN said the areas accounting for two-thirds of North Korea’s cereal production had been severely affected.
Earlier this year, doctors treating a North Korean soldier shot while defecting to South Korea found that he had a large number of parasites in his stomach, suggesting a widespread health crisis in the North, The Washington Post reported.
Seo Yu-suk, a research manager at the North Korean Studies Institution in Seoul, told Reuters that “North Korea pushes so hard for its people to gather more fish so that they can make up their food shortages.”
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 experts agree with the above assessment, however.
Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, an editor at North Korean Economy Watch, told Business Insider that it was “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,” he said. He added,
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 in August in response to two missile tests Pyongyang conducted the month before.
It’s unclear, however, how much the sanctions have affected North Korea’s food situation or economy.
“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,” Katzeff Silberstein said.
He added, “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, said the rise in North Korean fishing vessels found in Japan was indicative of a booming North Korean economy — because seafood is a luxury item.
“Many North Korean vessels are in the Sea of Japan because North Korea has promoted fishery policy since 2013,” he told Business Insider.
“They are fishermen [trying] to earn money,” he added. “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.”
He continued, “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,” Miyamoto said. “It will continue.”
The increased appearance of the vessels has reignited fears among some Japanese citizens who remain haunted by the spate of kidnappings carried out by North Korea that occurred along Japan’s west coast in the 1970s and ’80s.
When eight men claiming to be North Korean fishermen turned up in the coastal city of Yurihonjo two weeks ago, the local newspaper Akita Sakigake Shimpo ran the headline “Are they North Korean spies?” (They are not, local police told The Times.)
Pyongyang’s nuclear program and recent missile tests have also increased Japanese suspicion toward North Korea.
“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,” Kingston said.