It was yet another grim discovery: The bodies of three unidentified men suspected to be from North Korea were found Tuesday, washed ashore on a beach in Fukaura, Aomori Prefecture, just over a week after a small wooden boat was found in the area.
The latest find has further deepened a mystery that has captured the attention of the Japanese public in recent weeks — an apparent surge in the number of wooden boats from North Korea that have been found on and just off the Sea of Japan coast.
Over the past two months, local authorities have already uncovered debris from five similar boats in the same town, with all believed to have come from Japan’s isolated neighbor.
Last month alone, the Japan Coast Guard found 28 wooden boats believed to be from the North across a wide swath of the country’s Sea of Japan coast and in the waters nearby.
In December so far, 20 similar cases have already been reported as of Tuesday, according to the coast guard.
While that number may appear alarming, the coast guard has routinely found a number of similar North Korean fishing boats — including those holding bodies — stretching back several years. And this year’s number, according to the coast guard, may still fall within the range of past years.
According to coast guard data, it has spotted 79 wooden boats believed to be from North Korea on and off the Sea of Japan coast so far this year. Last year, 66 such boats were spotted, while 45 were found in 2015, 65 in 2014 and 80 in 2013.
What made this year different, and is seen as a possible reason for the increased media attention, has been the surge in the number of surviving crew members from wrecked or damaged North Korean fishing boats.
This year, authorities have found 42 survivors, while a total of just five survivors were found from 2013 to 2016.
Hideshi Takesada, a professor at the Takushoku University graduate school in Tokyo and an expert on North Korean affairs, has speculated that the greater number of survivors may be because more fishermen have been forced further from their shores after Pyongyang reportedly sold much of its fishing rights in nearer seas to China.
“As a result, they have to come to Japan’s exclusive economic zone to catch fish. They’re not to used to making a such a long trip on such a small boat,” he said.
Takesada said this meant that they were loading up with more supplies, including food and water, than in previous years. Because of this, he said, “there’s a higher chance that they survive.”
Pyongyang, desperate for foreign currency, is believed to have sold a chunk of its fishing rights to China. An August 2016 report by the Yonhap news agency quoted a South Korean government source as saying that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earns $75 million annually from the sales of Sea of Japan fishing rights to China.
“It has been confirmed that North Korea has sold its fishing rights in the East Sea to China, in addition to the Yellow Sea, to earn foreign currency,” the source was quoted as saying. South Korea refers to the Sea of Japan as the East Sea.
The coast guard says hundreds of North Korean fishing boats have been detected in the Yamato Bank area in the middle of the Sea of Japan this year.
Most are believed to have been engaging in illegal poaching in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.