North Korean ‘Ghost Ships’ in Japan: Defectors or Wayward Fishermen?

Kyodo News via AP
Kyodo News via AP

The Japanese government is currently conducting tests to determine how the dozens of people found dead on dilapidated ships washing ashore died, and whether hypotheses that they came from North Korea are correct.

The story of dozens of wooden-planked ships appearing on Japanese shores—seemingly barely able to navigate and filled with bodies that had died so long ago many were described by officials as “skeletons”—rose to prominence earlier this week following a report by Japanese television station NHK. The ships, while not a new phenomenon, appear to be arriving in Japan at a much higher-than-normal frequency than they have in the past few years.

Thirty-four so-called “ghost ships” have reached Japan this year, CNN notes. 283 have been found since 2011, when the Coast Guard began to keep a record of them. The bodies on the ships are being tested for cause and time of death. It is estimated that the most recent ships were carrying bodies that had died two weeks before being found.

The little evidence Coast Guard officials have found all points to North Korea: rags that appear to have once been Korean flags, faded Korean lettering on the side of the ship, and even the direction of currents dividing Japan from the Korean peninsula make the voyage from North Korea to Japan with no navigation possible.

“There’s no doubt that these boats are North Korean,” John Nilsson-Wright, head of the Asia program at the Chatham House policy institute, tells CNN.

The question that remains, then, is who are the people on board? How did they meet their end?

CNN suggests the vessels were fishing boats who got too adventurous on the high seas, thanks to encouragement from dictator Kim Jong Il through the media that the fishing industry in North Korea must improve. A Japanese Coast Guard official claims the weather could have pushed them off course.

Australia’s News.AU, however, posits that weather could not have doomed the ships, as the seas near Japan have been relatively calm in the last month, when the latest set of ships washed ashore. News.AU notes additionally that there appear to be no signs of struggle on any of the ships, which would eliminate the possibility of a mutiny and subsequent battle for control that resulted in the deaths of all aboard. Some of the bodies have decomposed to such an extent, however, that it is difficult to say for sure.

Japanese news outlet NHK has found experts proposing that those onboard were not trying to please Kim with their fishing abilities: they were trying to flee. Snopes, the online fact-checking outlet, has deemed both theories equally credible given the information available publicly at the moment.

Snopes notes also that this is not the first time these ships have received international attention. CNN reported on them in 2012; the ships washing ashore then boasted the faintest hint of Korean lettering, too faint to read but just visible enough to identify as Korean text by local police. At the time, the Japan Times reported on similar boat landings with one notable difference: the people on at least one of the ships, landing in January 2012, had living passengers on board. “The three North Koreans and another man, who had died of hypothermia, were originally thought to be defectors from the communist state,” the newspaper notes, “But they told officials their boat had developed engine trouble during a fishing trip and they had unintentionally drifted. They were later repatriated.”

The Japan Times noted that, in 2012, the most popular way to defect from North Korea was to cross into China and navigate the perilous Gobi desert until reaching a safe place. Many attempted to reach South Korea in this roundabout way, where they are received as political refugees. But due to China’s relationship with North Korea and stricter border controls, the sea route grew increasingly popular. CNN reported in 2011 of the arrival of at least one ship containing living defectors in Japan.

In the years since, China has expanded its border security and established a strict policy of repatriating defectors, who could receive the punishment of spending time in a labor camp for having attempted an escape. Even those who make it out of China attest to horrors.

“I saw my mother raped before my eyes,” North Korean defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park recalled in 2014, telling the story of how a Chinese soldier demanded to rape her so as to not be reported to the authorities. Park’s mother bartered with the soldier and offered herself instead of the 13-year-old. Park made it to South Korea, but not without intense psychological scars.


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