Ghostly boats carry N. Korean crews – dead and alive – to Ja­panese coast

The Buffalo News - - CONTINUED FROM THE COVER - By Mo­toko Rich NEW YORK TIMES By­stander tries to peek in­side a wooden boat that washed ashore con­tain­ing eight corpses at Miyazawa Beach, north­west Ja­pan.

MIYAZAWA BEACH, Ja­pan – The weather-beaten wood fish­ing boat still har­bored its se­crets as it lodged in the sand, frigid waves beat­ing against its side. All that re­mained were a few clues, strewn across the deck.

No­ticed on­board were a bulb of gar­lic, tan­gled fish­ing nets and ropes, a yel­low ca­ble-knit sweater cov­ered in sand. Then there were the hints of the boat’s ori­gins: a jar of brown sauce that might be gochu­jang, a Korean fer­mented red chili paste, and sev­eral boxes of cig­a­rettes, bear­ing la­bels in Korean that warned, “smok­ing is the main cause of cancer and heart dis­ease.”

Eight men died on this 40-foot boat that washed ashore on Oga Penin­sula along Ja­pan’s north­west­ern coast late last month. The coast guard found their bod­ies, some re­duced al­most to skele­tons, on the boat, which is be­lieved to have come from North Korea. But what ex­actly the fish­er­men were do­ing and how they found their way to Ja­pan re­mains a mys­tery.

The boat that landed on Miyazawa Beach in Akita pre­fec­ture was just one of 76 fish­ing ves­sels that have ended up on Ja­panese shores since the be­gin­ning of the year, 28 of them in Novem­ber alone.

In the last two weeks, at least seven boats have ar­rived in Akita, all of them bear­ing signs that they came from North Korea. One of them car­ried eight live crew mem­bers to Yuri­honjo, a medium-size port town in Akita, where they were kept in cus­tody for more than a week be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to an im­mi­gra­tion fa­cil­ity in Na­gasaki on Satur­day. Ja­pan’s Im­mi­gra­tion Bureau said the men will be re­turned to North Korea.

As ten­sions mount on the Korean Penin­sula as the North’s nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams move ahead, the ar­rival of this ghostly flotilla has stoked anx­i­ety in Ja­pan, where res­i­dents are ques­tion­ing the mo­tives of the fish­er­men and of those who might have sent them.

“I am wondering why so many of these have all of a sud­den come in such a short time,” said Kazuko Ko­matsu, 66, who lives in a house close to the ma­rina in Yuri­honjo. North Korea, she said, “is a mys­te­ri­ous coun­try. We don’t know so much. I don’t know if they are com­ing here to es­cape or whether they just ac­ci­den­tally drifted here.”

For years, North Korean fish­ing boats, mostly ghost ships that ran aground ei­ther empty or car­ry­ing the dead bod­ies of their crew, have ar­rived in Ja­pan, of­ten in the fall and win­ter months when rough weather roils the sea and con­di­tions grow dan­ger­ous for crews us­ing out­dated boats and equip­ment.

The re­cent rise in num­bers of fish­ing boats land­ing on Ja­pan’s western coast has spooked lo­cal res­i­dents. Sus­pi­cions are par­tic­u­larly high when fish­er­men have come ashore. This year, 18 North Korean crew mem­bers have landed on beaches in Ja­pan, the high­est num­ber in the last five years.

The crews have told au­thor­i­ties that they hit bad weather and suf­fered me­chan­i­cal prob­lems on their boats be­fore drift­ing with the cur­rents to­ward Ja­pan. But some Ja­panese doubt those sto­ries, sus­pect­ing darker pur­poses.

Those doubts were fanned last month when the coast guard found a North Korean boat an­chored near an is­land off Hokkaido. When ques­tioned, the fish­er­men con­fessed that some of the boat’s 10 crew mem­bers had gone ashore and taken re­frig­er­a­tors, tele­vi­sions, wash­ing ma­chines and a mo­tor­cy­cle from fish­ing shacks.

In Yuri­honjo, where the eight liv­ing North Kore­ans washed up in a fish­ing boat Nov. 23, a lack of in­for­ma­tion has fueled spec­u­la­tion. “Are they spies?” read a head­line in the Akita Saki­gake Shimpo news­pa­per.

Out­side a gro­cery store in Yuri­honjo ear­lier this week, Mariko Abe, 66, said she was sus­pi­cious. “Maybe they were try­ing to kid­nap some peo­ple,” she said. Her friend, To­moe Goto, 41, said she won­dered if the fish­er­men were try­ing to de­fect. She also wor­ried that there were other crew mem­bers hid­ing in town.

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