Imagine you’re strolling along the beach or a jetty by the sea. As you smell the fresh sea air and feel the ocean breeze, you notice something very strange coming toward the shore. What could it be, tossing around in the waves? As it gets closer, the shape is unmistakable. It’s a boat.
Only this boat doesn’t seem to be able to move under its own power or control its direction. In fact, there are no signs of life on it at all. While this might sound like some dystopian science-fiction movie, for residents of Japan’s long coastlines, it’s a fairly regular occurrence.
They call them “ghost ships.”
The "ghost ship" — the term for vessels discovered with no living crew — was also missing a rotor blade and navigational devices.
For residents of Northern Japan’s coastlines, which face North Korea, and the Japanese Coast Guard, who patrol the waters between the two countries, this has become a regular occurrence. Perhaps the most grisly aspect has been the fact that many of the ghost ships have the skeletons of the people on board, who probably died of starvation and dehydration.
But why would so many of these ships turn up on the Japanese coasts, sometimes as many as two dozen in one month, as was the case in November 2017, as reported by Arirang News? And why would their occupants have died?
According to experts, the ghost ships are all from North Korea, as various pieces of evidence on the boats have revealed. In some cases, the Japanese Coast Guard has found victims “with a pack of North Korean cigarettes and other belongings with Korean lettering,” as the BBC reported.
As for why the boats end up drifting with no gas, no food, and crews that have been reduced to bones, the most plausible explanation seems to be that these are fishing boats illegally trawling the waters of the Sea of Japan to try to cash in on rich harvests of valuable fish like Pollock.
For decades now, North Korea has been suffering from chronic food shortages despite large quantities of food aid from outside countries. Suffering from a terrible drought of historic proportions, NPR reports that United Nations food specialists estimate that 40 percent of North Koreans will be affected by the dry weather.
Boats – sometimes empty, sometimes containing decaying corpses – keep washing up on the coast of Japan.
North Korea’s inefficient and corruption-riddled centrally controlled economy has resulted in significant food shortages. Food aid intended for the starving population is often used to feed the military instead.
In the wake of the chronic food shortages, North Korean communist leader Kim Jong Un is trying to force its citizens to produce more. The country’s average calorie intake is far below that of other countries in the region.
As Professor Stephen Nagy, a North Korea specialist, explained to the South China Morning Post, “sanctions imposed by the US and the international community are really having an effect on the broader economy in the North.”
Fishing boats that have been discovered by the Coast Guard sometimes have been found with crew alive, and they often tell of many days without food, water, or gas. As North Korea’s own coasts have been overfished, fishermen turn to the waters near Japan.
The terrible drought of 2019 and the food shortages that are sure to follow probably mean that more of these eerie ships are likely to wash up on Japanese shores.
As Professor Nagy told the South China Morning Post, “there’s a degree of desperation if these small boats are putting to sea in the harsh winter months to bring back resources.”