Boats full of dead people from North Korea keep showing up in Japan — here's why

  • Dozens of ships containing dead bodies have washed up in Japan recently.
  • All the evidence indicates that the "ghost ships" are coming from North Korea.
  • It isn't a new phenomenon, but is happening more and more often.
  • One expert told BI it could be because of food scarcity in North Korea.


Dozens of dead bodies have mysteriously washed up on Japan's shores over the past few weeks — and all the evidence points to North Korea.

At least 40 corpses from around 15 boats have washed up along Japan's west coast since November, according to figures from Japanese authorities and calculated by Business Insider.

The most recent discovery was made on Thursday, when authorities found two skeletons near an upturned boat near the western city of Oga, according to the Washington Post.

While Japanese authorities haven't been able to definitively identify the origins of these "ghost ships" — vessels discovered with no living crew — multiple factors suggest that they are from North Korea.

29 PHOTOS
Evidence of strained ties along the China/North Korea border
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Evidence of strained ties along the China/North Korea border
Men rest on the North Korean side of the Yalu River north of the town of Sinuiju, North Korea, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A North Korean soldier guards the gate on banks of the Yalu River, north of Sinuiju, North Korea, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
North Korean soldiers react as a boat sails from the Chinese side of the Yalu River, north of the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A man and boys enter the water on an ox-cart from the North Korean side of the Yalu River, just north of the town of Sinuiju, North Korea, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A North Korean soldier sits on a bank of the Yalu River just north of Sinuiju, North Korea, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Tourists walk on the Broken Bridge, bombed by the U.S. forces in the Korean War and now a tourist site, over the Yalu River that divides North Korea and China, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 

People gather around a fortune teller in front of the Broken and Friendship bridges across the Yalu River in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

A North Korean soldier looks from a watchtower on the banks of the Yalu River, just north of Sinuiju, North Korea, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
North Korean soldiers patrol behind a border fence near the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A vendor receives Chinese money after selling North Korean goods to tourists on a boat taking them from the Chinese side of the Yalu River for sightseeing close to the shores of North Korea, near Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A girl stands on a ferry on the North Korean side of the Yalu River, just north of Sinuiju, North Korea, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
North Korean farmers work in a field as a section of the Great Wall is seen on the Chinese side of the Yalu River, north of the town of Sinuiju in North Korea and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
Lights are turned on on the Friendship and the Broken bridges over the Yalu River connecting the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
Workers stand on pile of goods at a port near North Korean town of Sinuiju, across the Yalu River from Dandong, in China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
Tourists from the Chinese side of the Yalu River sail in front of a North Korean boat ferrying people north of the town of Sinuiju in North Korea and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
Tourists pose with Chinese flag on a boat taking them from the Chinese side of the Yalu River for sightseeing close to the the shores of North Korea, near Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
Tourists gather to watch North Korean side of the Yalu River from the Broken Bridge, bombed by the U.S. forces in the Korean War and now a tourist site, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A woman in traditional dress invites customers to a North Korean restaurant on the banks of the Yalu River in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A souvenir vendor takes a nap in front of barbed wire marking the border between North Korea and China, just north of Dandong in China's Liaoning province, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Tourists look from a boat taking them from the Chinese side of the Yalu River for sightseeing close to the shores of North Korea, near Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A security officer guards an entrance of a luxury apartment complex built and offered for sale on the Moon Island on the Yalu River, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A man sits between binoculars he offers to tourists to watch the North Korean side of the Yalu River from the Broken Bridge, bombed by the U.S. forces in the Korean War and now a tourist site, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A couple gets ready for their wedding photo session on a boat that takes tourists from Chinese side of the Yalu River for sightseeing close to the shores of North Korea, near Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A woman exercises as a man stands at the banks of the Yalu River across from the North Korean town of Sinuiju, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A rocking chair is placed on the balcony of a luxury apartment overlooking the North Korean town of Sinuiju, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A man pauses at the banks of the Yalu River across from the North Korean town of Sinuiju, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
The North Korean side of the Yalu River and the Broken Bridge, bombed by U.S. forces in the Korean War and now a tourist site, are seen from a hotel room in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A man carrying fishing net wades through shallow waters of the Yalu River between China and North Korea, north of Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
The sun rises through fog over the Friendship and the Broken bridges over the Yalu River connecting the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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One of the boats, found on the island of Sado around November 26 contained what appeared to be North Korean cigarette packets and jackets with Korean writing on them.

Two bodies recovered from another boat in Yamagata prefecture on Tuesday were also wearing pins showing the face of Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un, according to Japanese news agency Kyodo and the Associated Press.

Most of the discoveries have been gruesome: Japanese authorities reportedly found skulls and decaying corpses in multiple cases.

Not a new phenomenon

japan ghost ship appearance skitchGoogle Maps/Business Insider

North Korean vessels have been showing up in Japan for years.

Eighty such ships drifted ashore in Japan in 2013, 65 in 2014, 45 in 2015, and 66 in 2016, said Satoru Miyamoto, a political science and economics professor at Japan's Seigakuin University, citing Japan Coast Guard statistics.

But the trend appears to have worsened this year: at least 76 vessels have showed up on Japanese shores since the beginning of 2017, 28 of which in November alone, The New York Times reported.

These appearances most frequently occur toward the end of the year, when bad weather proves most dangerous to seafarers using old boats and equipment, the Times said.

So why is this happening?

Life in North Korea is "grim and desperate"

The rising number of ghost ships in Japan indicates the dire food insecurity facing North Korea, some experts say.

Professor Jeffrey Kingston, the director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan, told Business Insider: "The ghost ships are a barometer for the state of living conditions in North Korea — grim and desperate.

"They signal both desperation and the limits of 'juche,'" he added, using the word for an ideology developed by Kim Il Sung, which justifies state policies despite famine and economic difficulties within the country.

To make matters worse, North Korea suffered a severe drought earlier this year, which dramatically damaged the country's food production and will likely result in further food shortages, the United Nations said in July.

While the exact extent of crop damage remains unclear, the UN said the areas accounting for two-thirds of North Korea's main cereal production had been severely affected.

Earlier this year, a North Korean soldier who was shot while defecting to the south was found with a large number of parasites in his stomach — suggestive of a widespread health crisis gripping the country, The Washington Post reported.

Seo Yu Suk, a research manager at the North Korean Studies Institution in Seoul, also told Reuters: "North Korea pushes so hard for its people to gather more fish so that they can make up their food shortages."

Professor Kingston added: "These rickety vessels are unsuitable for the rough seas of the Sea of Japan in autumn, and one imagines that far more are capsizing that we will never know about."

17 PHOTOS
Wanson, North Korea: Kim Jong Un's pet tourism project
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Wanson, North Korea: Kim Jong Un's pet tourism project
A family builds a sandcastle at Songdowon International Children's Camp in Wonsan City in this undated photo released by KCNA. To match Special Report NORTHKOREA-TOURISM/WONSAN KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS
The Bay of Wonsan is seen from a hotel room in this October, 2016 photo in Wonsan, North Korea. To match Special Report NORTHKOREA-TOURISM/WONSAN Christian Petersen-Clausen/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Portraits of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are seen in central Wonsan, North Korea October 2016. To match Special Report NORTHKOREA-TOURISM/WONSAN Christian Petersen-Clausen/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Artists of the Moranbong Band, the State Merited Chorus and the Wangjaesan Art Troupe, perform in Wonsan City of Kangwon Province, North Korea in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 14, 2017. To match Special Report NORTHKOREA-TOURISM/WONSAN KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA.
The Mangyongbong 92 ferry is seen docked in central Wonsan, North Korea, October 2016. The ferry used to carry goods and people between North Korean and Japan until Tokyo introduced unilateral sanctions banning the trips. To match Special Report NORTHKOREA-TOURISM/WONSAN Christian Petersen-Clausen/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
People swim at Songdowon International Children's Camp in Wonsan City, North Korea in this undated photo released by KCNA. To match Special Report NORTHKOREA-TOURISM/WONSAN KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS
Artists of the Moranbong Band, the State Merited Chorus and the Wangjaesan Art Troupe, perform in Wonsan City of Kangwon Province, North Korea in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 14, 2017. To match Special Report NORTHKOREA-TOURISM/WONSAN KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA.
Statues of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are seen in Wonsan, North Korea October 2016. To match Special Report NORTHKOREA-TOURISM/WONSAN Christian Petersen-Clausen/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A girl carrying goods cycles past wild flowers near the North Korean town of Wonsan October, 2016. To match Special Report NORTHKOREA-TOURISM/WONSAN Christian Petersen-Clausen/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
The centre of Wonsan, North Korea, is seen from a hotel window October, 2016. To match Special Report NORTHKOREA-TOURISM/WONSAN Christian Petersen-Clausen/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides field guidance to the Wonsan Baby Home and Orphanage in the run-up to a ceremony for their completion, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) June 2, 2015. REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
People attend the Wonsan Air Festival 2016 in Wonsan, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on September 26, 2016. KCNA/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) applauds during a photo session with the soldier-builders who performed labor feats in building the Wonsan Baby Home and Orphanage in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang June 3, 2015. REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA.
This undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on December 9, 2016 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) at the Wonsan Shoes Factory in Kangwon Province. / AFP / KCNA VIA KNS / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A man kisses a child on her head during the second day of the Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan on September 25, 2016. Just weeks after carrying out its fifth nuclear test, North Korea put on an unprecedented civilian and military air force display Saturday at the country's first ever public aviation show. / AFP / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Parachutists prepare to perform an aerial display during the second day of the Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan on September 25, 2016. Just weeks after carrying out its fifth nuclear test, North Korea put on an unprecedented civilian and military air force display Saturday at the country's first ever public aviation show. / AFP / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Spectators cheer as parachutists perform an aerial display during the second day of the Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan on September 25, 2016. Just weeks after carrying out its fifth nuclear test, North Korea put on an unprecedented civilian and military air force display Saturday at the country's first ever public aviation show. / AFP / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
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... Or are they a sign of a booming North Korean economy?

Not all agree with the above assessment, however.

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, an editor at North Korean Economy Watch, told BI: "It's unclear to what degree it's directly related to food shortages per se.

"If fishers are ordered out for longer periods of time, with bigger demands on the catch they bring back — and with less gasoline with them than they need, due to the sanctions and shortages — that is certainly a connection of sorts.

"It is also possible that to make the same level of revenue through selling seafood domestically — which seems to be the best option given that they cannot export their products to China through formal ways due to current sanctions on seafood imports from North Korea — they would simply need to make bigger catches."

The UN Security Council, of which China is a member, unanimously imposed sanctions on North Korean seafood and other commodities this August in response to two missile tests Pyongyang conducted the month before.

It's unclear this point how much sanctions have affected the North Korean food situation or economy, however.

Katzeff Silberstein said: "Though the economy overall is under pressure from sanctions, food prices have not gone up to the degree that some may have expected, which suggests that there isn't any acute scarcity as of now.

"On the other hand, there have been anecdotal reports of food scarcity increasing, particularly in the northeastern parts of the country, near the border to China, where agriculture is not at all as widely spread as in the southern regions."

Miyamoto, the Seigakuin University professor, even said the rise in North Korean fishing vessels in Japan is indicative of a booming North Korean economy — because seafood is a luxury item.

12 PHOTOS
Street food in North Korea
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Street food in North Korea
A photo illustration shows corn powder-based rice cakes made by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye at her North Korean food store in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows North Korean sausage "sundae" cooked by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye at her North Korean food store in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
A photo illustration shows corn rice and rice displayed at a North Korean food store run by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
North Korean candy is seen in this picture illustration taken in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye demonstrates how North Korean people make rice cakes with corn powder at her North Korean food store in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
A photo illustration shows North Korean snacks at a North Korean food store run by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows "Injogogi", which means a textured vegetable protein, at a North Korean food store run by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows North Korean candy at a North Korean food store run by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows a dish of "Injogogi-bab", which means rice with textured vegetable protein, cooked by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye at her North Korean food store in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
A photo illustration shows packed North Korean powdered spices in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows North Korean candy at a North Korean food store run by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
A photo illustration shows a dish of "Injogogi-bab", which means rice with textured vegetable protein, cooked by North Korean defector Hong Eun-hye at her North Korean food store in Seoul, South Korea, September 28, 2017. Picture taken on September 28, 2017. To match Insight NORTHKOREA-FOOD/ REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Illustration
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He told BI: "Many North Korean vessels are in the Sea of Japan because North Korea has promoted fishery policy since 2013.

"They are fishermen [trying] to earn money. Now North Korean economics, which adopted free market partly, have grown, and generated a wealthy class. A wealthy class demands not caloric food, but healthy food. So seafood, which are healthy, is popular in North Korea. [...]

"It is evidence not that the North Korean economy is deteriorating, but that the North Korean economy is growing... Hungry people demand not seafood which are low-calorie, but cereal and meat which are high-calorie."

He also told CNN the "ghost ship" phenomenon increased "after Kim Jong Un decided to expand the fisheries industry as a way of increasing revenue for the military. They are using old boats manned by the military, by people who have no knowledge about fishing.

"It will continue."

Japan's response

The increased appearance of the vessels have reignited fears among some Japanese citizens who remain haunted by the spate of kidnappings that occurred along Japan's west coast in the 1970s and 1980s.

When eight (living) men, claiming to be North Korean fishermen, turned up at the coastal city of Yurihonjo two weeks ago, local newspaper Akita Sakigake Shimpo ran the headline: "Are they North Korean spies?" (They are not, local police told The New York Times.)

Pyongyang's nuclear development programme and recent missile tests have also increased Japanese suspicion toward North Korea.

Kingston, of Temple University, said: "Given recent missile and hydrogen bomb tests, public anxieties and anger towards North Korea has increased, so sympathy for the ghost ship crews has been limited."

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SEE ALSO: North Korea's poverty is so dire that farmers reportedly steal each other's feces to fertilize crops

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