JAPAN: They wash up along bleak coasts and sandy beaches on the western shores of Japan – crews of corpses on drifting boats, or empty shipwrecks.
Sometimes there are survivors, but more often than not, the bodies have been mutilated by the sea. The crafts range from primitive, wooden boats to large fishing trawlers. But they all hail from the same place – secretive North Korea.
In recent years, baffled residents of fishing villages in Japan have made such horrifying discoveries. These vessels have earned the grim title of “ghost ships”. “I imagine the crews died with unimaginable fear,” said monk Ryosen Kojima.
“They could only watch as the first person died. Then they had to see the second person die. Each person must have died with extraordinary fear and helplessness. I feel very sorry for them.”
In 2017, the bodies of eight North Korean fishermen mysteriously washed up on the Oga Peninsula where Mr Kojima's temple is sited.
The Japanese media have reported on these ghost ships since 2013, but they have been appearing with increased frequency recently.
And as the programme Undercover Asia discovers, theories and fears abound as to who these North Koreans are and – the big question – why they have been appearing. (Watch the episode here.)
SPIES OR FISHERMEN?
Mr Kazuhiro Araki, who heads a research group for Japanese abductees, has this theory: North Korea is using these ships for espionage. “If Japanese people see a shipwreck, some of us might think there were spies on it,” he said.
During the 1970s and 80s, some Japanese citizens were abducted by North Korean agents, he cited. So some members of his organisation think there is even a plot to revive the abduction programme.
The number of ships appearing first peaked at 104 vessels in 2017 and then doubled last year.
And their presence has caused some measure of paranoia at a time when North Korean propaganda had been threatening the annihilation of Japan with weapons of mass destruction.
“The number of ghost ships has increased since November 2017, when North Korea stopped launching missiles ... Therefore, we can assume that North Korea is now sending spies instead,” added Mr Araki.
It’s probable that spies have made land, disguised as shipwrecked fishermen.
Noodle shop owner Shizuo Sato from Yamagata prefecture, north of Tokyo, recounted how he found a washed-up body, its neck stuck in between the rocks, last December.
“I really thought it was a mannequin. It didn’t look human … I couldn’t see his head,” he said.
“We’ve known of many ghost ships found in this area. We’ve all thought that if it’s a dead body, it must be a North Korean.”
Talk of espionage, however, stokes unnecessary anxiety and can be dismissed “with firm facts”, said journalist Jiro Ishimaru, who has been covering North Korea for 26 years.
He has spoken to a North Korean fishing company, which told him that Chongjin, the largest city in the northeast corner of the Korean peninsula, has been nicknamed “Widows Town” because many of its fishermen have gone missing at sea.
“It was mostly their need to make money despite the bad conditions. They’ve gone further offshore in recent years. They’ve found a larger quantity of squid in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, so they take more risks,” he added.
QUOTAS AND SANCTIONS
Professor Andrei Lankov, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University, believes there is a connection between international sanctions and the ghost ships mystery.
As fuel, which used to be imported cheaply from Russia and China, became unavailable, it led to a decline in North Korea’s state-owned fishing operations, he said.
“The grandfather of the current leader loved large fishing ships. And he spent a lot of money to build (them). They require a lot of highly expensive fuel … As a result of this, the state-run fishing industry collapsed,” he added.
Unemployed individuals were then allowed to buy registration licences, which gave them the right to run private fishing boats. But in reality, these boats belong to the government. As more licences were issued, overfishing became a problem.
A North Korean defector, Mr Lee, said the fishermen must return a certain percentage of their catch to the government.
“If one doesn’t fulfil one’s quota, one won’t be allowed to fish,” added the former fisherman. “The (fishing) executive could get punished.”
The upshot is that fleets of fishing boats have headed far from their coastline and deep into Japanese waters.
Some of these boats run into trouble and end up drifting to Japan, along with the bodies of the crew who had succumbed to starvation or the cold.
Squid fishermen Ken Honma has noticed more North Korean ships in the Yamato Bank – a rich fishing region in the Sea of Japan – in recent years compared to none 10 years ago.
“They come as a large group. If you look at the radar, they appear like an island … as many as 1,800 ships,” he said. “They’re fishing illegally.”
Another factor that is at play is the United Nations’ new set of sanctions – imposed in 2017 in response to North Korea’s nuclear programme – which included banning the country’s seafood exports.
North Korea’s overseas partners still buy its seafood but at lower prices, since it is illegal, said Prof Lankov, adding: “So (the fishermen) are under great pressure … to take risks”.
By the end of 2017, the majority of ghost ships arriving that year were found after the sanctions had been enforced.
INEXPERIENCED AT SEA
North Korea’s fishing vessels have got more powerful in recent years and can travel further, said another defector and former fisherman, Mr Joon. But that also means more complications for inexperienced crews.
“Only those with more than 20 years of experience can endure waves that are 50 storeys high. People with weak hearts could have a cardiac arrest,” he said. “There’s also a chance of hitting your head and dying from concussion.
“There are people who actually jumped into the sea. They’d rather die an easier death and choose to commit suicide.”
In 2017, the ghost ships arrived with 35 dead bodies. But not all of their crews perish: Between 2013 and last year, 49 North Korean fishermen were rescued.
Mr Joon said that while Pyongyang knows about these ships, there is little it can do. “The North Korean government accepts it. They only think it’s a pity that people are dead,” he added.
The ghost ship phenomenon and the plight of the country’s fishermen are becoming “highly visible” to the international media, and are a source of shame on the North Korean government, said Prof Lankov.
“However, shame is shame, survival is survival. So for them right now, survival is more important,” he added.
The ships have also become a diplomatic, logistical and financial nightmare costing Japan millions of dollars in police investigations, clean-up operations and the repatriation of rescued survivors and human remains.
It took over a year, following the shipwreck off the coast of Oga Peninsula, for the cremated remains of the eight fishermen – which were kept at Mr Kojima’s temple – to be repatriated.
Even if North Korea’s political situation changes, its fishing industry might not, and the ghost ship crisis could continue. “Even if by some miracle, North Korea becomes a democracy … we’re likely to have more fishing licences,” said Prof Lankov.
“More people would go to do highly risky fishing. And they’d still have no money to buy really reliable large engines … Don’t expect this issue to disappear. It probably will get worse.”
Watch this episode of Undercover Asia here.