Hundreds of North Korean fishing boats have washed up on Japan's shores in the last five years after fishermen got lost at sea and died.
Japanese media quoted maritime police as saying 227 North Korean fishing boats have washed up there since January 2013. One Japanese government official said, "We can't reveal the number of dead North Koreans who have been discovered considering diplomatic repercussions."
Yoshihiko Yamada at Tokai University, said the ghost ships wash up mostly in winter, when the wind blows from Siberia toward Japan.
Many more are believed to have been lost at sea, and very few fishermen reach Japanese shores alive. If they set off from the North Korean ports of Hamhung or Wonsan, they drift for 1,000 km over a period of more than two months before their vessel gets stranded on Japanese shores.
The reason seems to be that the North Korean regime ordered fishermen to drastically boost their catch, while local markets that have sprung up since 2012 have also increased economic pressure on fishermen to deliver goods to sell there.
Satoru Miyamoto at Seigakuin University told Japanese broadcaster NHK last year, "After the order to boost fish hauls, fishermen have been venturing recklessly into the ocean. These small wooden boats lack radar and GPS equipment, so if they run into bad weather on the high seas they end up being pushed to Japan by the currents."
According to recent defectors, fish stocks have largely been depleted in waters just off the North's eastern coast, so fishermen have to venture further out to the high seas. But the boats are small and have weak motors, and fishermen only carry two to three days' worth of food and water on their boats. If they venture too far out, fishermen drift until they die.
"Those who are discovered by South Korean maritime police or other fishing vessels are extremely lucky," one defector said. "Most of them either die or are washed up on Japanese shores as skeletons."
One Japanese fisherman who saw a North Korean fishing boat off the coast of Maizuru city in Kyoto Prefecture, said, "I couldn't believe they were fishing in little wooden boats like that."
Port officials there said decayed corpses were found on board a North Korean fishing boat that was washed ashore. They were identified by their clothing, which had the word "Pyongyang" stitched on them, as well as North Korean currency found on the boat. One port official said, "North Korean fishing boats wash up on the west coast all the time, so I was able to identify this one quickly. Nobody uses such shabby boats in Japan."
The Yomiuri Shimbun reported in April that the tiny motors used on North Korean fishing boats have not been used by Japanese fishermen for 30 years. Most of the remains of fishermen are not returned to North Korea because North Korean authorities refuse to pay for their repatriation. Instead they are cremated and kept at Japanese shrines. Only some are returned at the request of the North Korean Red Cross.
Japan charges 2-3 million yen per body because of the cost of demolishing the boats and cremating the remains, but officials admit they do not expect the North to pay the money.
A North Korean wooden ship that washed up in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture in Japan in November 2016