'Ghost Ships' From North Korea Wash Ashore In Japan

North Korean fishing ships continue to wash up on Japanese shores. NPR’s Michel Martin talks to Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief Jonathan Kaiman about where these ships are coming from.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We’d like to talk now about an issue that’s causing concern in North Korea that has nothing to do with the country’s recent nuclear test. Last Monday, a small wooden boat washed up on a beach in northwest Japan. The coast guard found eight bodies on it. There were clues that it came from North Korea, including knife – lifejackets with Korean lettering and North Korean cigarettes on board.

This wasn’t the first incident. In fact, North Korean boats have been washing up on Japan’s coasts since 2013, and the number of ships has risen since then. At least four of these so-called ghost ships washed up on Japanese beaches just last month. The question is, why? Los Angeles Times journalist Jonathan Kaiman wrote about this, and he’s with us now from Beijing. Mr. Kaiman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JONATHAN KAIMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So when did this start happening and is there a reason this seems to be happening more frequently now?

KAIMAN: Well, this has been happening for decades, yet it has spiked. And Japanese experts have several different theories as to why. Some say that the people on board may have been trying to defect as Kim Jong Un, the country’s leader, has effectively militarized and closed the border with China, which is a more common route for defectors.

There is also a professor in Tokyo who I think has the most compelling theory. His name is Satoru Miyamoto, and he believes that the number of ships washing ashore spiked in 2013 after Kim Jong Un put out a call to expand the fisheries industry to increase revenue for the military. He said that the order prompted scores of soldiers to go out on old boats without proper navigation equipment and, in some cases, no fishing experience onto what is, really, a perilous body of water – the Sea of Japan – in November.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that people are seeing on these boats? You’re saying that they seem to be in pretty spare condition with pretty sparse equipment.

KAIMAN: Yeah. I saw some of the boats myself. And they’re very – they’re very spartan. And you see Korean script written on the side of the boat, some of which mark the boats as military. And on board, you see North Korean cigarette packs, tattered North Korean flags. Some of them also, as you said, wash ashore with bodies onboard. And some of them are so badly decomposed that one coast guard investigator told me he couldn’t even identify their genders.

MARTIN: Does the North Korean government ever ask for the remains to be returned or repatriated to them? Does the North Korean government have anything to say about this?

KAIMAN: Not that I know of. I’ve never seen a statement from the North Korean government. But when things aren’t going well in North Korea, they’re very rarely publicized to any degree, and people are kept largely in the dark.

MARTIN: Does this whole phenomenon say something about what’s happening in North Korea? I mean, is there something larger that we could read into this other than the fact that North Korea is willing to put people out on the seas who don’t know how to fish?

KAIMAN: I think the scale of the problem suggests that things in North Korea are bad. I think just like the defector who crossed the DMZ was found with long parasites in his stomach, any case of North Koreans entering the outside world either as defectors or essentially dead military fishermen washing ashore on the west coast of Japan – they hint at the scale of a humanitarian emergency in North Korea that’s greater than outside observers can easily comprehend.

MARTIN: That’s Jonathan Kaiman. He’s the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He was kind enough to speak to us from Beijing. Jonathan Kaiman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KAIMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

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