A fishing deal between North Korea and China could be why dozens of boats containing dead bodies have appeared in Japan recently, experts have said.
The Japanese coast guard has found around 50 dilapidated boats believed to be from North Korea — many containing corpses or skeletons — along the country’s western coast since the beginning of November, the Japan Times reported on Tuesday.
The latest discovery came on Wednesday, when officials in Akita found a wooden boat containing partially decomposed bodies, one of which was wearing a badge of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, according to CNN.
The exact reasons behind the phenomenon remain unclear — it could be due to food scarcity in North Korea, as one expert previously told Business Insider, or it could be due to annual quotas imposed on North Korean fishermen.
It could also be because North Korea has sold fishing rights off its west coast to China, forcing fishermen to flock to its east coast near Japan, where sea conditions are too rough for rickety wooden boats this time of year.
Why North Koreans can’t fish in some of their own waters
Experts say North Korea has sold fishing rights off its west coast to China to earn foreign currency, forcing fishermen to go east instead.
Chinese boats were given the right to fish in waters above the Northern Limit Line — a border dividing the Yellow Sea between North and South Korea — last year, an anonymous South Korean intelligence source told the Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency.
The nature of the fishing rights deals remains unclear, however.
According to the South Korean official, the Kim Jong Un regime sold the fishing licenses through intermediaries, He reportedly stood to earn $75 million (£57.2 million at the time) from the deal.
But Professor Hazel Smith, a researcher at SOAS who lived in North Korea from 1998 to 2001, said they were deals between private enterprises.
She told Business Insider: “North Korean companies of all different sizes do individual deals — all of which have to be ratified at some level and licensed by the government — with Chinese companies on all sorts of businesses. Fishing is one of them.
“A lot of them are verbal contracts,” she said, meaning they are hard to prove.
The importance of fish in North Korea
Pyongyang has for years encouraged its citizens to fish more — even likening it to military duty.
The state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun wrote in a November editorial, according to the Nikkei Asian Review: “Fishing boats are like warships, protecting the people and the motherland. Fish are like bullets and artillery shells.”
Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Japan’s Waseda University, told The Washington Post: “Fishermen usually have a set quota, and they used to sell the seafood to China. Now with the new sanctions, they can’t sell the seafood overseas, but the quota still exists, so fishermen… probably stay out too long to catch more fish.”
Pyongyang also encourages fishing to introduce more protein to the national diet, Smith said — although whether it’s worked is a different matter.
She said: “The North Korean government for the past 25 years has tried to promote the development of freshwater fish because it’s been aware for a long time that there needs to be protein in the diet. Most North Koreans don’t get sufficient protein, so they’ve promoted these big catfish farms internally.
However, she said, it’s still not a dietary staple in the country because it’s “extremely expensive” to trade and transport and very few people own fridges.
“Fish is, cannot be, and has never been seen as a major form of protein for the majority of people in North Korea.”
Regardless, many fishermen continue to venture out to dangerous waters out of desperation, Smith added.
“People are still hungry and in the winter when it’s often -20 [Celsius], you need food to fuel your own body. People are still fighting poverty.
“It’s a lot easier to get through security apparatus these days, compared to 20 years ago, because security officials are also looking for money to buy food for their families.
“But they are in a relative position of power in their communities, either to turn a blind eye to a boat going out or to say that they can do a deal where they get part of the profits if something comes back in.”
Commenting on the ghost ships, she added: “It doesn’t surprise me that we’re seeing more of this happening now. People are more desperate, [and they have] more opportunities. It shows a terribly sad state of the country.”