Number of North Korean shipwrecks shot up in 2017

Last year alone, 104 abandoned wooden ships thought to be from North Korea and other regions around the Korean Peninsula were discovered in the waters of Japan. This number represents an increase from 2016, when 66 such vessels were found, and was the largest annual number since 2013. The second largest annual number over that time period was 80 shipwrecked vessels.   

-Statement from South Korea’s Maritime Safety Agency

Observers have noted a recent rise in abandoned North Korean ships being found adrift, often in Japanese territorial waters. Some experts believe that the sanctions-struck North Korean economy has driven a greater number of North Korean fisherman to venture further out to sea. And from the fall of 2017, typhoons are likely to have damaged at least some of the vessels.   

The reason for the increase in shipwrecks over the past year, how the wrecked vessels should be dealt with, and the Japanese government’s policy on the matter are all issues that have subsequently risen to prominence. More importantly, the actions that could be taken to prevent these tragedies from occurring requires broader discussion. To shed further light on the situation, Daily NK recently dispatched a special coverage team to the western coast of Japan.

This wrecked ship found on the coast of Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture is presumed to be of North Korean origin. Image: Daily NK Special Coverage Team.

The special coverage team traveled to Japan in mid-May for a week-long investigation into North Korean shipwrecks. The reporters first visited Ishikawa Prefecture, proceeding on to Yamagata Prefecture and the coastline of Akita Prefecture. The team met with local fisherman, residents, fisheries industry representatives, and government officials to better understand the diverse viewpoints on the matter.  

Viewing the splintered and battered remains of the shipwrecked vessels, the coverage team could vividly imagine the North Korean fishermen who had once clung to them desperately, ultimately being overcome by the power of the ocean.

The squid fishing season began in June. Barring radical improvements in North Korea’s economy, it is likely that more fishermen braving the daunting waters will risk their lives to make ends meet. In an effort to shed further light on the issue, Daily NK will publish a further five articles by the special coverage team.

*Daily NK and Unification Media Group gratefully acknowledge support from the Korea Press Foundation for this article.  

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