Ghostly boats carry N. Korean crews – dead and alive – to Japanese coast
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often in the fall and winter months when rough weather roils the sea and conditions grow dangerous for crews using outdated boats and equipment.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.