The specter of famine and the lure of big rewards is resulting in thousands of impoverished and ill-equipped fisherman from North Korea heading out to sea, and apparently many of them do not return.
Related to this, a number of empty fishing boats with decomposing corpses have landed on the shores of Japan in recent weeks, most of them North Korean “ghost” vessels that were lost at sea as they traveled too far out into open waters trying to increase their catch.
North Korea has not made any official announcement regarding missing boats, but despotic North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has publicly prioritized on fishing to bring in foreign currency and provide a more sustainable food source for the hungry population of the country.
Of note, the Japanese authorities reported finding 12 wrecked wooden boats (some broken into pieces) in Japan since October, and finding a total of 22 dead bodies on the boats.
More on ghost fishing boats from North Korea
Mysterious boats wash up in Japan on a regular basis, given the nature of ocean currents in the Pacific, but the number of older wooden boats has been noticeably increasing over the last year or so.
Although Japanese authorities would not speculate regarding the origins of the boats or the identities of the deceased, a hand-written sign on one boat read Unit 325 of the North Korean army, based on video from Japan’s NHK Television.
North Korean defectors and maritime experts suggest that the most likely explanation for the increase in ghost fishing boats in Japan is desperate fishermen from North Korea. They suggest that various units of the Korean People’s Army have been pressured to catch more fish, and that some boats have drifted off course and become lost, and many boasts are poorly equipped for rough seas.
Video clips of a few of the boats showed large but primitive motorized wooden fishing boats, and the Japanese coast guard noted that the vessels did not have GPS navigation.
The weather in the Sea of Japan has not been particularly bad so far this fall, but the seas are rougher at this time of year due to the strong northwesterly winds.
Fishing experts note that October through February is prime season for squid, sandfish and king crab off the east coast of the Korean peninsula, and it would be normal for many boats to be at sea this time of the year, explaned Kim Do-hoon, a professor of fisheries science at Bukyong National University in Busan
“But North Korean boats perform really poorly, with bad engines, risking lives to go far to catch more. Sometimes they drift and fishermen starve to death,” he continued.
Fishing a major industry in North Korea
Fishing is an important industry in North Korea where food shortages are commonplace. The North Korean army is also involved in food production, especially fishing, with hundreds of fishing craft heading out to sea daily..
“Some of the boats belong to Korean People’s Army fishery stations, possibly operating to catch sailfin sandfish,” notes An Chan-il, a North Korean who defected to the South in 1979 and founded a private think tank on North Korea.
“Kim Jong Un is pushing hard to produce more fish. So these boats must have been stranded after overworking,” he explained.
North Korea experts have noted that Kim has made boosting food production, including fishing, a major priority for the isolated country since taking over from his father in late 2011.