Four North Korean fishermen wash up in Japan, suggesting international sanctions have driven them to desperation

  • These vessels, adrift in the ocean, have been dubbed ‘ghost ships’ by Japanese media
  • Coastguard reported 207 North Korean vessels found in Japanese waters in 2018, a sharp increase from 38 in 2016
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 9:20pm

Four North Korean fishermen are being cared for on the Japanese island of Okinoshima, about 80km off the coast of Shimane Prefecture, after the engine of their boat broke down and they drifted ashore.

The number of North Korean vessels sighted in Japanese waters has soared in the past two years, suggesting international sanctions against Pyongyang are forcing fisherman to venture further from their base in search of a catch.

The four men, who told local authorities their names and were able to explain their plight, were found on the island on Tuesday and were given food by a resident. The men said they had not eaten for 10 days after their engine broke down in the Sea of Japan.

Takeko Murakami, a resident, told Kyodo news agency she fed them even though she did not understand what they were saying. She said one of the men, who appeared to be the leader, bowed in appreciation after she gave each of them jackets to keep them warm.

Police located a 9.3-metre-long fishing boat, containing ropes and mugs, washed up near where the men were found. A number on the hull of the vessel was faded and illegible.

Sanctions imposed by the US and the international community are really having an effect on the broader economy
Stephen Nagy, International Christian University

The Japan Coast Guard has reported 207 North Korean vessels washed up on Japanese shores or found derelict in Japanese waters in 2018, almost double the 104 in 2017 and a sharp increase from 38 the previous year.

Most are believed to have suffered some kind of mechanical failure that left those aboard at the mercy of the elements, with the crews of only a few vessels surviving to reach land. In most of the incidents there were no indications regarding the fate of the crew although in a number of cases the decomposing remains of sailors were found aboard the vessels.

These vessels, adrift in the ocean, have been dubbed “ghost ships” by Japanese media.

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said the increased numbers indicated sanctions against North Korea have taken a toll.

“Sanctions imposed by the US and the international community are really having an effect on the broader economy in the North and forcing ordinary people – like these fishermen – to go beyond what they would normally endure to get resources,” Nagy said. “The elite in Pyongyang may still be feeling the positive effects of Kim Jong-un’s switch of focus to the economy, but these fishermen are not seeing the same benefits at all.”

Another explanation is that fisherman may be under increased pressure from North Korean authorities to return with a larger catch due to acute food shortages at home. The North’s coastal waters have also been overfished in recent years, with stocks not given sufficient time to recover as demand has increased.

Late last year, Japanese fishermen estimated seeing 1,500 North Korean fishing boats operating illegally within Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan, defying efforts by the coastguard to force them to leave.

The North Korean boats were operating in the rich squid and shrimp fishing grounds off the Noto Peninsula, prompting local fishermen to ask the government for help to preserve fishing stocks.

“There’s a degree of desperation if these small boats are putting to sea in the harsh winter months to bring back resources,” Nagy said, adding that with no sign of sanctions easing, these latest fishermen are unlikely to be the last to wash up in Japan.