Residents of Tsuruoka, Japan, clearly recall the day last December when an abandoned wooden vessel that seemed to have drifted down from North Korea was discovered. In June, Daily NK’s special investigative team spoke to residents in the area about the discovery.

Ise-Shima, which is located in the northern part of Honshu, is a small village on Japan’s western coast that faces North Korea’s Chongjin City in North Hamgyong Province, some 900 kilometers away. The Japanese residents noted that while there have been cases of components of wooden boats washing up on shore, it is uncommon for a fully-intact boat to wash up. The discovery evoked feelings of surprise and apprehension.

The wooden boat has now been disposed of, but the Daily NK team decided to head to the place where it washed up after hearing that the boat had been tied up to a large rock for some time. At the site in front of the town, some white ropes wrapped twice around a large rock protruding from the water was all that marked the site. The rock was located in front of the town, so much so that it could be seen from the town’s homes that lined the beach.

One resident who lives in a two-story house right in front of the beach noted that, “Japanese boats are strongly built, but the North Korean boat was made of wooden planks and looked like it was falling apart.”

“It looked like something people used to use a long time ago and the side of the boat had a gash in it […] The town was in an uproar because a dead body was found washed up on shore after the boat was discovered,” another resident on the beach said.

On the beach near Iragawa, some 2-3 kilometers away from the shipwreck, what appeared to be the body of a North Korean citizen was discovered. Sato Kajo (68), who reported the incident to the police, remembers the day clearly. Kajo is from Iragawa and operates a noodle shop with his wife. “The person who discovered the body came to the shop and informed us, so I went to the police and reported it […] It looked like a mannequin at first but after looking closely at the legs I realized it was a dead body.”

Sato had also seen the wooden boat that washed up on Assumi and said, “We don’t know if the body was related to the boat or not, but the shoes they were wearing suggested that they were from North Korea.” When asked by the Daily NK team whether there were hints that the boat was actually from North Korea, Sato answered that “there were Korean characters written on the boat.” Sato had learned Korean at one point and holds a great deal of interest in the country, so he was able to recognize the characters immediately.

Sato’s wife, Sato Kajuko (63), who was listening to her husband speak to the Daily NK reporters, chimed in, saying, “There were cases in the past where boats and even bodies floated down to the shore, but there was a sudden increase last year […] I was a little afraid because a long time ago I heard that there were boats from North Korea coming to kidnap people.”

Another villager who Daily NK met in Iragawa expressed apprehension about the fact that a wooden boat and body from North Korea had been discovered at nearly the same time. The Daily NK team asked five villagers who were gathered at a local supermarket how they felt when the wooden boat was discovered. After discussing among themselves for a moment, they all answered at the same time, “Scared.” One of the residents in the group explained, “I was scared because I saw a news story about North Korean fishermen coming down to Hokkaido and stealing things from locals.”

At the end of last year, eight North Korean men in a wooden boat landed at the beach in Yurihonjo, Akita Prefecture, which is around 90 kilometers north of Iragawa. Responding to a report by local residents, the police arrested the eight men and launched an intensive investigation. The police concluded that they had come up against trouble on the high seas while fishing and ultimately repatriated them back to North Korea through China on December 26, 2017.

On June 15, the Daily NK team traveled to Honjo Marina, where the wooden boat the eight men had arrived on was discovered. Home to around 50 yachts, Honjo Marina’s surrounds were very quiet and it was difficult to find anyone walking about. When the team approached a man named Takahashi (59) who was cleaning his yacht in the hot sun to see if he had seen the yacht, he whipped out his phone immediately and showed the team a picture.

Takahashi said he felt scared when he saw the boat. He recalled that the boat looked more like a vessel used by North Korean espionage agents made to look like a fishing boat rather than anything really used for fishing. He also recalled that the entire village was caught up in fear at the time because rumors had spread that the North Korean men had been ringing on doorbells for a while after landing in the area.

Hitching a ride on Takahashi’s boat, the team then moved to where the wooden boat had been tied up. While handling the yacht’s wheel, Takahashi suddenly stopped the boat and pointed to the nearby tetrahedral concrete structures used to prevent erosion. His finger pointed to a white rope that was wrapped around one of the grey structures. “That’s where the wooden boat was tied up. It had Korean letters on it.”

“The weather then was so bad that it was amazing that the boat was discovered before it sank. The back of the boat was torn up but the rest of it looked fine. I didn’t think it had just washed up on shore because of that. I suspected it was used by espionage agents […] There was a light bulb attached to a wooden stake inside the boat so it looked like a squid fishing boat, but I couldn’t really tell, so I was a bit scared,” he remarked as he stared at the seawall.

Japanese people visit to pay respects to North Korean remains

There were Japanese residents the Daily NK team met who expressed sadness that North Korean fishermen had braved the high seas only to end up with their bodies washed up on Japanese shores. They also expressed sorrow that the corpses were unable to be returned home to their families. The Dosenji Temple in Oga, Agita Prefecture, currently houses the remains of the fishermen. Agita Prefecture incinerated the bodies that officials were unable to identify and has given the responsibility for caring for some of the remains to the Dosenji Temple.

The presiding monk of the temple since 2003, Gojima Ryosen (62), told Daily NK, “When we tell villagers who come to the temple about the remains of the fishermen, they pray for them […] Japanese-Koreans and Japanese people know that we have the remains here and sometimes come to say they want to help. We have also received letters and money from around 20 people.”

When the Daily NK team visited the temple, there was a green alcohol bottle with familiar writing sitting on top of the altar where the remains were. A Japanese-Korean had brought South Korean soju to the temple and placed it there after hearing about the deaths of the fishermen. “A Japanese person came here last winter with the remains of a family member, but there was no place to put them […] When I told him that the remains of North Koreans were here, he understood what I meant and expressed hope that they would find peace. It really warmed my heart.”