Zumwalt: North Korea’s Ghost Ships and the ‘Hell on Earth’ Left Behind

Kyodo News via AP
Kyodo News via AP

There is a tragically disturbing trend underway in Asia with evidence of it continuing to reach the shores of Japan.

On January 10th, a capsized boat 16 meters in length washed ashore east of Tokyo in Ishikawa Prefecture. Seven bodies were discovered in small rooms. The extent of body decomposition suggested the vessel had been drifting for some time across the Sea of Japan. The body of an eighth man washed up on the beach separately. His autopsy indicated he had died in September.

The vessel’s point of origin was believed to be North Korea based on a badge found onboard depicting likenesses of the country’s two previous leaders, traditionally worn by its citizens.

While one or two such ghost ships washing ashore in Japan does not a trend make, the fact that 104 such vessels in 2017 did so suggests this is a trend of pandemic proportions. It is both tragic and disturbing.

Most of these boats have been discovered with decayed human remains onboard — some even skeletonized — although a few boats were crewless. The Japanese Coast Guard only started maintaining data records concerning these ghost ships in 2011. While the tallies for those years varied from a low of 47 in 2012 to a high of 80 in 2013, 2017 registered a new high.

Due to the obvious lack of access to information about, and lack of diplomatic relations with, North Korea, the Japanese are at a loss as to what to do with the bodies. Meanwhile, they can only theorize what is happening.

One theory is food shortages have forced unseaworthy boats to venture further out to sea to fish. Their country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has demanded fishermen increase the size of their catches — although it would not appear that “the Incredible Bulk” has suffered any from food shortages. While this may be a cause in some cases, there have been boats found without any fishing equipment onboard suggesting such a theory does not hold water in all cases.

Thus, another theory emerges that the victims were attempting to defect. This would be a reasonable assumption since, after all, an estimated 30,000 people have defected from North Korea over the past several decades—more than the entire population of some of the smallest countries of the world.

However, in one case in which a survivor was onboard, he requested being returned to North Korea. Whether this was truly voluntary on his part or the result of his exposure to North Korean propaganda about Japanese treachery and butchery, we do not know. The butchery that was Japan’s during World War II and under which all Koreans suffered is still not forgotten.

The fact that so many North Korean crew members failed to survive their ordeal at sea, whatever the cause for creating it, is somewhat telling too about their will to do so. There are numerous stories involving mariners in far less seaworthy craft lacking any survival tools, such as fishing gear, who have traversed greater bodies of water for longer periods of time and lived.

Additionally, it is fairly easy to sail across the Sea of Japan. Between the sixth and tenth centuries, Japan regularly exchanged emissaries with various kingdoms on the Korean peninsula and conducted trade there. Why 21st-century North Korean sailors would be unable to similarly navigate that body of water safely remains a mystery.

There would seem to be more to the story of the North Korean ghost fleet Japan is accumulating than meets the eye. While there is a possibility its victims represent yet another manifestation of their leader’s known brutality, possibly being cast out to sea intentionally to perish, their failure to kick into a survival mode to safely transit the Sea of Japan suggests they may simply have given in to a death wish.

If this is so and these victims, having no desire to live, embraced the will to die, it is most telling that, in North Korea, the Kim dynasty has successfully created “Hell on Earth.”

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.