In the past several years, a few dozen empty boats thought to be of North Korean origin have washed ashore annually in prefectures facing the Sea of Japan, especially Niigata and Ishikawa, according to the coast guard.
Although this year’s total is likely to be similar, with at least 11 vessels found in a roughly one-month period since late November, the difference this time is that they were carrying people: four survivors and 10 bodies.
While North Koreans have sailed to Japan before in search of asylum, the prevailing view among experts is that the boats arriving on Japan’s coasts this year were not manned by people fleeing the isolated country.
Some argue strong winter winds and rough seas this year are behind the surge in washed-away vessels, while others claim it may indicate Pyongyang is encouraging fishing activities to secure greater food supplies for its starving population.
On Nov. 28, five badly decomposed corpses were found on a boat that washed up on rocks in Sado Island’s Mano Bay in Niigata Prefecture. The vessel bore Korean characters and had what appeared to be a fish locker.
A couple of weeks later, a coast guard patrol aircraft spotted a ship drifting off the coast of the Oki Islands in Shimane Prefecture, with people on it frantically signaling for help. All four men aboard were rescued Dec. 11, and the coast guard learned that the ship had suffered engine trouble.
The vessel was later confirmed to be North Korean, but all the crewmen left Japan and returned home with apparently no intention of seeking asylum.
Aside from these incidents, there were also reports of boats carrying fishing nets or marked with Korean characters found along the coast of Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture and Yurihonjo, Akita Prefecture.
But many boats are found drifting off Sado Island, as well as the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, both of which are covered by the 9th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Niigata.
The regional coast guard unit reported 23 vessels that apparently originated from the Korean Peninsula — either intact or as wreckage — in 2009, 22 in the following year and 32 in 2011. This year, it has reported 22 through Dec. 20.
“From what we read in media reports, they don’t appear to be defectors from the North,” said Hiroshi Kato, an official of the nongovernmental organization Life Funds for North Korean Refugees.
“Quite often, North Korean fishing boats set off on expeditions with the minimum fuel necessary due to fuel shortages,” Kato said. “It could be that a growing number of boats drifted away unintentionally and their crew became unable to return to the North.”
Most of North Korea’s fishing fleet is based in the northeastern city of Chongjin, and the North’s coast guard sometimes robs the fishermen of their catches and fuel at sea, Kato said.
A scholar on North Korea’s crippled economy said: “Fish are an important source of protein. It’s possible more fishing is currently being encouraged to improve the quality of life for North Koreans,” the key policy of leader Kim Jong Un.
The Meteorological Agency has meanwhile reported strong seasonal northwest winds that are causing rough seas this year, because the winter pressure pattern strengthened earlier than usual.
Ships could be getting driven toward western Japan by these winds and then swept northward along the northwest shore on the back of the Tsushima Current, with some ending as far north as Akita and Aomori prefectures, the agency said.