Troubled Waters

An investigation reveals why hundreds of North Korean fishermen are dying at sea

The Chinese use “pair trawlers,” with two boats using a net strung between them to comb the seas. courtesy the outlaw ocean project
01 November, 2020

On 29 December 2019, police in Japan’s Sado Island found the remains of at least five people, including two severed heads, in a wooden boat that had washed ashore. It was the second “ghost boat”—as battered wooden vessels containing the corpses of North Korean fishermen are popularly known in Japan—to wash up at Sado that month. Across the country, over a hundred and fifty ghost boats were found in 2019 alone, and there have been more than five hundred of them in the past five years. The Japanese coast guard stated that it had found over fifty bodies in such vessels last year.

Encrusted with shells and algae, these flat-bottomed boats are typically around five metres in length. They have no toilets or beds, and typically contain just a few jugs of drinking water, fishing nets and tackle. They fly tattered North Korean flags, and their hulls are often emblazoned with painted numbers or markings in Hangul, including “State Security Department” and “Korean People’s Army.”

Since 2013, at least fifty survivors have been rescued from these dilapidated boats. However, in interviews with Japanese police, the survivors rarely say more than that they were stranded at sea and that they want to return home. Autopsies on the bodies found on these boats usually indicate death from starvation, hypothermia or dehydration. All the bodies appear to be male, though some were so badly decomposed that investigators struggled to say for sure. So many North Koreans have disappeared at sea in recent years that some ports in the country, such as Chongjin, are now called “widows’ villages.”

Political tensions between North Korea and Japan, and a lack of transparency in the so-called “hermit kingdom” of North Korea, make it difficult to get an official explanation of this macabre phenomenon. Japanese authorities have speculated that climate change has pushed the squid population that many North Koreans depend on farther away from the Korean peninsula, driving desperate fishermen dangerous distances from shore. However, an investigation carried out by The Outlaw Ocean Project and Global Fishing Watch, non-profit organisations that track illegal activities on the high seas, has provided a more likely explanation: China has been sending an armada of industrial ships to illegally fish in North Korean waters, violently displacing smaller vessels. 

Ian Urbina is a former investigative reporter for the New York Times and the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organisation based in Washington DC that focusses on reporting about environmental and human-rights crimes at sea.