December 5, 2017 5:14 pm JST  (Updated December 5, 2017 6:47 pm JST)

Spike in North Korean 'ghost boats' signals deepening desperation

Midnight arrivals and an island hut raid put Japan on high alert

KOJI MURAKOSHI, Nikkei staff writer and KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei Asian Review chief desk editor

This North Korean boat washed ashore in Yurihonjo, in Japan's Akita Prefecture, on Nov. 23. Such vessels are clearly not designed for long voyages. © Kyodo

TOKYO -- On a chilly November night, half an hour before midnight, the local police in the northern Japanese prefecture of Akita received an emergency call. The caller, a woman, said there were suspicious foreigners on her front porch.

When officers arrived at the house in the city of Yurihonjo, they found eight men. Later, the men said they were from North Korea and had left port a month earlier. They said they washed ashore after their engine broke down.

They were looking for squid.

On Saturday, nine days after the emergency call, the police flew the men to Nagasaki Prefecture, where they were transferred to an immigration facility. All eight have expressed a desire to return home, and preparations are being made to fly them back via Beijing.

The men came in one of the rickety wooden boats that are washing up on Japan's west coast at an alarming rate. The crews, believed to be from North Korea, are arriving both dead and alive; sometimes they are simply missing.

Are they really fishermen, chasing their prey in faraway waters in inferior ships? Are they trying to escape Kim Jong Un's oppressive regime, like the solider who recently dared to cross to South Korea under a hail of bullets? Have North Korean agents been slipping into Japan on some kind of mission?

Every year, dozens of fishing boats from the North find their way to Japanese shores. But the spike in sightings across a string of prefectures since last month -- Akita, Ishikawa, Niigata, Yamagata and Hokkaido -- suggest there is more to the story. According to the Japan Coast Guard, 28 North Korean boats washed ashore or were found adrift in November. The monthly average since January had been around five.

Something has changed back in the Hermit Kingdom.

Electronics haul

A total of 64 vessels have been discovered so far this year, as of Monday, along with 18 dead bodies and 42 people found alive.

That puts this year's boat tally right within the average range of 45 to 80 observed since 2013. But the dramatic increase in November has put the Japan Coast Guard on high alert. The Sea of Japan can be treacherous in winter, raising the possibility that more boats will be found wrecked or capsized.

This week, a refuge hut on an uninhabited islet off Hokkaido was raided. A range of electronic appliances were taken, including a TV, a refrigerator and a rice cooker. Solar panels were also swiped from a lighthouse. The TV was found on a wooden fishing boat drifting in waters nearby, with 10 North Korean fishermen on board. Sources told The Nikkei that the fishermen admitted to local police that they took it from the islet.

The fishermen were seen dumping some items into the sea after they were spotted by the Coast Guard.

As a measure of precaution against unknown diseases and suspicious chemicals, inspectors from the Coast Guard and local police wore protective gear as they entered the uninhabited island to check the damage.

Inspectors check a solar panel thought to have been stolen by North Korean fishermen from an uninhabited island off Hokkaido. © Kyodo

Yoshihide Suga, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, on Tuesday told reporters that "the police and Coast Guard are questioning the crew" and that he will refrain from commenting further at this time. "We are examining their testimonies and cautiously confirming the facts, including whether they are fishermen or not."  

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is keeping a low profile -- including by leaving the island raid in the hands of local police, as a burglary. Most likely, the government wants to avoid diplomatic complications with Pyongyang.

"The government has most likely concluded that these are pure fishermen and not spies," said Professor Ken Kotani of Nihon University's college of risk management in Tokyo. "If so, it makes sense to let the local police handle it. Once the central government gets involved, the Abe administration will have to take a stance, which would make it a diplomatic issue."

On Nov. 26, another vessel bearing the partially skeletonized remains of eight people was discovered on the shore of Akita. The grisly find indicates that the crew, or what remained of it, had been out at sea for an exceptionally long time. A cigarette pack with Korean lettering was also found in the boat, which measured roughly 7 meters long by 2-3 meters wide.

The boats are believed to be breaking down while fishing illegally in the Sea of Japan's Yamato Bank, one of the prime fishing grounds within Japan's exclusive economic zone.

Sanctions' unexpected consequences

As harsh economic sanctions imposed by the international community begin to bite, North Korea's fleet of decrepit wooden fishing boats has become increasingly vital to the country's survival, braving rough waters to secure food and foreign currency. Raising the fish haul by whatever means necessary appears to be a national policy.

Fish are like bullets and artillery shells
Rodong Sinmun editorial

The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, stressed in a Nov. 7 online editorial that fishing in winter represents an "important battle" to meet annual quotas for fishery products.

"Fishing boats are like warships, protecting the people and the motherland," the paper added. "Fish are like bullets and artillery shells."

The editorial reflects a directive issued by Kim when he visited a military fisheries office in 2016. He called for zealously committing to fish quotas in order to "supply fresh fish to military personnel and our people."

Kim stressed the importance of winter fishing, proposing that fishermen spend more than 300 days a year at sea.

One ship found off Ishikawa had the words "Military Unit 264" on the hull, suggesting that even military vessels have been mobilized to reach the quotas. Meanwhile, small boats designed for only sailing in nearby seas have been seen near the Yamato Bank, showing North Korea's fleet is dangerously overstretched. A lack of quality fuel inevitably leads to engine damage, which can leave the boats adrift.

Fishing for foreign currency

"The fisheries industry is one of the main sources of foreign currency" for the North, a spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of Unification said.

But the country's desperate efforts to raise cash have left the industry scrambling. According to Seoul, Pyongyang has sold numerous fishing rights to China in its quest for foreign currency after exports of its coal and weapons collapsed as a result of United Nations sanctions.

"After North Korea sold coastal fishing rights to China, fishermen have had no other choice but to fish farther from their shores," a Japanese government official said, adding that the country's dwindling foreign currency reserves have driven North Korea to resort to illegal fishing.

North Korean marine products are also on the list of sanctions. Some experts note that Pyongyang is forcing fishermen to fish in winter not only because of chronic food shortages, but also to smuggle out banned marine products.

The Sea of Japan is about 3,000 meters at its deepest, and features a centrally located submarine mountain rising more than 2,000 meters from the ocean floor. The Yamato Bank marks the sea's shallowest point, at 236 meters. Its waters, roiled by complex currents, are rich with plankton -- a favorite food of squid hatchlings and other marine life.

Alleged poaching by North Korean fisherman in the Yamato Bank began to increase in June. Their boats withdrew after the Japan Coast Guard stepped up patrols, but they have returned as the autumn fishing season kicks off for squid and other fish.

"We cannot fish there because the many North Korean boats make operations dangerous," said an official at the Yamagata prefectural fisheries cooperative association.

Concern is growing that the illegal fishing will only increase across a wide area. Wooden boats suspected to be of North Korean origin have reportedly been seen near Musashi Bank, a prime fishing spot off Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island. The Ishikawa prefectural fisheries cooperative association has since asked the Coast Guard and other authorities to increase monitoring.

"Illegally entering our valuable fishing areas in the exclusive economic zone," an Ishikawa association official said, "is a matter of life and death for us."

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