Chart titled “Identification of wooden boats of presumed North Korean origin;” Bottom (from left to right): “Empty vessels found on Japanese coast,”” “bodies found on Japanese coast,” provided by the Japanese Coast Guard, and “survivors found on the Japanese coast.” Data: Daily NK

According to the Japanese Coast Guard, a total of 104 North Korean ‘ghost ships’ washed up on Japanese shores in 2017, the highest number since record keeping began in 2013. Additionally, in 2017, the bodies of 35 fishermen were found either in the boats or nearby, also the highest number on record.

The trend has continued into 2018. By May this year, 42 presumed North Korean fishing boats had washed up on Japanese shores, as well as a total of nine bodies. Ishikawa Prefecture, on the central coast of Western Japan, has seen the most wrecked ships and bodies.

Shikata Takahumi, who researches maritime issues for the Maritime Academy of Ishikawa, has been investigating why this particular region has been on the receiving end of so much wreckage from the fishing boats. “In recent years, the currents haven’t changed, so blaming the increased number of shipwrecks on the sea would be implausible,” he asserted, discounting any theories that it might be a natural anomaly that has brought on the recent phenomenon.

Lacking a scientific explanation, our reporting team turned to those who know the industry best, the fishermen of Ishikawa, who have seen a rise in North Korean boats in  the fertile fishing grouds of Yamatotai, located within the the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The issue of presumed North Korean boats and bodies washing ashore has now come to the forefront for local governments. Normally, when boats are washed ashore, they are handled by fisheries agencies or the port authority at the prefectural or local level. If bodies are found, then the police or Coast Guard must handle the autopsy and formal investigation. At the conclusion of the investigation, the local authorities are responsible for performing burial rites.

As the number of ships and bodies washing ashore has increased across the Japanese west coast, local governments have begun to feel the pressure. Last December, some provincial leaders made formal requests to the central government for monetary and political support. In Yamagata, a city in the northern part of the Hanshu Prefecture, Omori Doru, a section leader for the Crisis Management Department of the Ministry of Energy and Environment, met with the Daily NK reporting team last May.

According to Omori, “the people here banded together to ask for government support, and received assistance.” Although each prefecture is confronting the issue slightly differently, Mr. Omori said in the case of Yamagata, 85-95% of the support comes from the central government.

The first wreckage was discovered in Yamagata last November 21. By the next month, the number had increased to four. While the area had seen fragments of wreckages before, last year’s discovery was the first time locals found an entire boat. Locals also discovered the bodies of eleven presumed North Korean fishermen.

In response to the sudden influx of “ghost ships” washing ashore in Yamagata last year, the local government published a manual. “We were completely unprepared for the number of boats that washed ashore, so we decided to take action,” Mr. Omori said.

“At first, we had no idea how to handle the situation.”

The first manual was completed in December last year and updated in April. The “Shonai Shipwreck Disposal Manual” includes procedures for proper approach, inspection, and oversight of wreckage washed ashore. Additionally, the government is expected to increase patrols to crack down on illegal fishermen in Yamatotai.

In the case of survivors making it ashore, there is a procedure in place to coordinate with the higher authorities.Before performing burial rituals, the authorities attempt to identify the remains in order to send them home, but according to a spokesperson for the Japanese Coast Guard, there has not been a single case of a suspected North Korean fisherman’s body being successfully identified.

According to the Ministry of Maritime Affairs, local governments have a procedure for identifying the bodies and returning them to North Korea through the Red Cross. Although most of the bodies have a Kim Il Sung badge pinned to their shirts, the Japanese authorities say this is insufficient for a formal identification as North Korean. A DNA test is required and must involve the families of the victims, but this has proven impossible to date. Due to the unsanctioned nature of the activity and lack of cooperation from the North Korean government, the Japanese government has not identified or returned any of the bodies.

Local governments, after performing official investigative duties, have been turning the bodies over to local Buddhist temples. This has become a common practice for unidentified bodies in the area, explained Gojima Ryosen, a monk at the Dosenji temple. The reporting team visited the temple in the town of Oga in the Akita Prefecture. At the shrine sat an urn with the remains of several unidentified bodies, presumably North Korean fishermen.
The temple maintains a designated space at the altar for this urn.

When space at the altar is full, the monks take them to a cemetery for others who have passed away without a family, located at the base of the mountain behind the temple. This includes the remains of ten presumed North Koreans, whose urns are adorned by white ribbons.

Above the altar, Gojima quietly gazed at the urns and said, “Death in itself is a loss, but not being able to return home to one’s country and family is a tragedy. Our temple may not be able to provide a proper funeral, however, we try to send their souls to the next world with as much care and devotion as possible.”

*Translated by Nate Kerkhoff