Why wooden boats crewed by skeletons keep beaching on Japanese shores

Analysts say the boats carry fishermen or refugees, likely driven out to sea by deteriorating conditions in North Korea, as the country faces tightening sanctions over its nuclear and missiles programs.
November 28, 2017, 9:43am

A wooden boat carrying the skeletal remains of eight people washed up on a Japanese beach Monday, the latest suspected North Korean “ghost ship” to reach the country.

The discovery was made just days after two men’s bodies were found on the western shoreline of Japan’s Sado Island. Earlier this month, three more vessels were intercepted – one with a living crew on board, one with living and dead crew, and another containing four dead bodies.

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Japanese authorities are working to establish where the men originated, but the likelihood is North Korea. Cigarettes and lifejackets bearing Korean lettering were located near the bodies found on Sado Island at the weekend.

Forty-four boats have washed up in Japan so far this year, Sky News reported, compared with 66 last year. Japanese media have taken to calling the floating tombs “ghost ships.”

Analysts say the boats carry fishermen or refugees, likely driven out to sea by deteriorating conditions in North Korea, as the country faces tightening sanctions over its nuclear and missiles programs.

Seigakuin University’s Satoru Miyamoto, a Japanese North Korean specialist, told CNN the number of ships washing ashore has risen since 2013 as part of Pyongyang’s push to grow fisheries’ revenues to subsidize the military.

“They are using old boats manned by the military, by people who have no knowledge about fishing,” he said.

Seo Yu-suk, research manager of North Korean Studies Institution in Seoul, told Sky News the rise in ghost ships could be caused by food shortages, with crew venturing out in less seaworthy vessels in their push to bring back a catch.

The vessels don’t always carry the dead. On Thursday, eight North Koreans were rescued after their boat washed ashore in Akita prefecture.

A week earlier, on Nov. 15, three North Koreans were rescued by Japan’s coast guard in Ishikawa prefecture. Three dead bodies were found aboard their vessel the next day, and the following day, four dead bodies were found on a boat that washed ashore nearby.

Japanese authorities say the fishermen rescued earlier this month were returned home along with the bodies of their crew mates on their request – suggesting not all the ships are part of an effort to flee their homeland.