TOKYO — For decades, residents of Awashima island off northeastern Japan fretted about the possibility of being abducted by North Korean agents. The coastal area of Niigata Prefecture is where a number of Japanese were captured in the 1970s and ’80s, including 13-year old Megumi Yokota, who was taken on her way home from school in 1977.
These days, such fears have shifted to the threat posed by the growing number of North Korean “ghost boats” arriving in the area — wooden boats bearing the corpses of fishermen as well as sick and starving survivors.
“It is no longer someone else’s affair,” said a self-employed resident of Awashima island in his 30s. “I have small children, and it is scary to imagine running into these illegal entrants.”
The possibility of tired, hungry, desperate men breaking into houses in the community is all too real. Several wooden boats have landed in Awashima in recent years, including one with a corpse in it.
In one instance, the fishing town of just 370 residents waited several days for police to arrive from the mainland to take charge of a boat that had been towed into the harbor. Awashima is a one-hour ride by high-speed boat from the mainland.
Since December, two police officers from Niigata have been assigned to patrol the island on a regular basis, traveling back and forth to the police station on the mainland every few days. While the island has a temporary police presence during the tourist season in July and August, there is no full-time presence.
Awashima is by no mean alone in its worries. Ghost boats have been appearing throughout the islands and coastal areas of the region, from the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, to the northern main island of Hokkaido. In November, eight North Korean men were found on the front porch of a house in the town of Yurihonjo, Akita Prefecture in northern Honshu.
The reason so many North Korean fishermen have gone adrift is that the country sold off its own fishing rights to China in a desperate effort to raise cash. According to the South Korean government, Pyongyang has sold off various rights to China in exchange for foreign currency after its exports of coal and weapons collapsed due to United Nations sanctions.
“Since North Korea sold coastal fishing rights to China, fishermen have had no other choice but to fish farther from their shores,” a Japanese government official said, adding that the country’s shortage of foreign currency has driven it to illegal fishing.
While North Korean marine products are also on the sanctions list, some experts say Pyongyang is forcing fishermen to operate in winter to cover chronic food shortages, and to gather marine products for smuggling abroad.