The ghosts of North Korea


For most people, the arrival of a new year prompts a moment of reflection on what has been working and what needs to change. Not for the people of North Korea. In that benighted country, “New Year’s resolutions” are not really an option for ordinary citizens. What happens to them depends entirely on their leader, Kim Jong Un, and typically involves grim paranoia and deprivation.

North Koreans endure plenty about which outsiders can only speculate. Consider the mysterious “ghost ships” that are carried to the Sea of Japan each autumn by southwesterly winds. The boats are crude, small (about 10 meters in length), and equipped with little more than basic fishing gear. Some are empty; others carry the dead bodies of unidentified men. In November alone, 13 boats and 26 bodies (most already largely decomposed) were found. In 2014, more than 60 such boats turned up.

Some of the boats and their contents bore markings in Korean Hangul script. One carried a handwritten sign stating that it belonged to unit 325 of the North Korean Army. Another contained a tattered cloth that appeared to have once been part of a North Korean flag. Add to that the boats’ dilapidated condition and lack of equipment, and the conclusion that they were North Korean seems fairly certain.

What is more difficult to discern is what the ships were for, and why they have been making their way, in such large numbers, to Japan’s shores and territorial waters. After all, they seem like fishing boats, not military vessels, though North Korean soldiers are frequently also fishermen.

It has been widely speculated that the boats were filled with would-be defectors, not least because they resemble boats on which living defectors arrived in Japan. Another explanation is that the boats are filled simply with fishermen who, under pressure from the government to boost their yields, ventured out too far into the open sea. Sadly, that explanation is all too plausible.

North Korea’s government goes to great lengths to conceal the country’s abysmal food shortages, even going so far as to unveil to the foreign media an advanced indoor vegetable-farming facility near Pyongyang. But the fact is that there have been no sustained improvements to food production since the mass starvation of the 1990s and early 2000s, despite slightly greater tolerance of private production by farmers.

Indeed, although Kim identified “food for the people” as one of his regime’s top three priorities for 2015, little investment in this effort was actually made. Not even the resumption of fertilizer supplies by a private South Korean organization was enough to make a real difference.

With fallow soil and a poor climate inhibiting agriculture, North Korea’s government has indeed apparently been encouraging a growing number of fishing boats to go farther out in search of bigger catches. Given the boats’ poor quality, it is no surprise that many do not make it home.

The ghost ships are not the only source of odd questions and speculation about North Korea. Just this past month, the all-girl Moranbong Band — reportedly organized and sponsored by Kim himself — canceled its first performance in China, intended for Chinese Communist Party officials. Soon after arriving by train in Beijing, the band’s members were quickly bundled onto a plane back to Pyongyang.

Some have speculated that a song praising North Korea’s nuclear program was too much for China’s leadership to stomach, especially so soon after Kim declared (probably falsely) that his regime had detonated a hydrogen bomb. Others think that Kim was angered by the news that Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese leaders would not be attending the concert. In any case, the relationship with China, on which North Korea has long depended, seems to be coming under increasing strain.

As for Japan’s relationship with North Korea, the outlook remains far from rosy. Discussions of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s — a major impediment to official relations — have stalled. North Korea has stubbornly maintained its official line that only 13 Japanese were kidnapped; eight died and five were returned to Japan before ever making it to Pyongyang.

Japan insists — with good reason — that there were more kidnappings. The five abductees who were repatriated in 2002 included Hitomi Soga, whose abduction was not included among the 13 acknowledged kidnappings. This creates the impression that North Korea may still be holding some kidnap victims to use as bargaining chips in discussions on economic cooperation.

Japan continues to demand a new comprehensive investigation into the matter, though North Korea has not been particularly cooperative so far. During bilateral talks in Stockholm in 2014, the Kim regime agreed to pursue a new investigation, in exchange for Japan’s agreement to lift some sanctions once the inquiry began. In July, however, the North reportedly notified the Japanese government of its intention to postpone submitting the results of the reinvestigation.

If the report is eventually submitted and includes the names of one or two abductees available to be sent back to Japan, how should Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government respond? This kind of manipulation may not merit a visit to North Korea by Abe or the lifting of sanctions.

So ended another bizarre year (which makes it similar to previous years) in the history of North Korea. The only factor suggesting that 2016 could be different lies in the North’s estrangement from China. Perhaps Japan could take advantage of the strains in that relationship to make some headway in other talks, say, on the nuclear issue. The main question, however, is whether Kim is able and willing to act in his country’s real interests, and not those of his fantasies.

Yuriko Koike, a former defense minister and national security adviser, was chairwoman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council. © Project Syndicate, 2015