YAMAGATA – Four bodies, suspected of being from North Korea, were found Monday on the northern coast of Honshu, local authorities said.
Three of the bodies, believed to be men, were discovered in Yamagata Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan coast. Two were wearing clothing with badges depicting late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, Japan Coast Guard officials said, but all three bodies were badly decomposed, likely from their time in the water.
One was found floating in waters near a fishing port after the coast guard received a report from a fishing boat, while police were informed that two other bodies had been discovered on a beach some 500 meters away.
According to investigative sources, police are looking into potential links to a capsized wooden boat that was found Saturday on a beach in adjacent Akita Prefecture.
In Akita, a body that had been reduced to a skeleton and broken pieces of wood which appeared to be parts of a damaged boat were also discovered Monday.
Winds and currents push dozens of boats onto Japan’s northern coasts annually. Rickety North Korean fishing boats are particularly vulnerable because they lack the sturdiness and equipment to return home.
But the alarming pace over the past few weeks has prompted Japanese authorities to step up patrols.
Twenty-eight of the vessels — dubbed “ghost boats” — were detected in November, up from just four in November last year.
Usually, only the boats or fragments wash ashore. It is very rare for survivors to be rescued and brought ashore in Japan.
The increase may be related to a campaign pushed by leader Kim Jong Un to boost fish harvests as a means of increasing sources of protein for the nation, which continues to fall short of food self-sufficiency and remains vulnerable to health problems caused by the lack of a varied, balanced diet.
In order to reach their quotas, the North Korean fishermen may be taking more risks and venturing farther from their usual fishing areas.
Japanese authorities are also holding 18 people from two other boats. They claim to be North Korean.
The first batch of 10 landed on a small uninhabited island off southern Hokkaido on a damaged fishing boat and allegedly stole electronic appliances and other items from an unmanned shelter while temporarily taking refuge from rough seas. Japan Coast Guard personnel rescued them last week.
Eight other survivors who managed to reach shore in Akita on a damaged boat — which is believed to have fallen apart and sunk soon after they were rescued — have been transferred to immigration custody.
Japanese officials said the 10 are being investigated for possible theft, while the other eight are expected to be sent home via China.