Photo/IllutrationA wooden boat washes ashore on a beach in Yurihonjo, Akita Prefecture, on Nov. 24. Its stern was damaged. (Kazuyoshi Sako)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

A veritable flotilla of wooden boats--many apparently from North Korea and either carrying crew members alive or dead or completely empty--have washed ashore on the coast of northern Japan this month.

Their appearance is fueling speculation on the internal state of the reclusive country, in light of tougher U.N. sanctions and orders from North Korean authorities to fishermen to head to sea, even in winter.

According to the Japan Coast Guard, there were between two and five boats that were confirmed to have drifted to the Japanese coast each month from January to October this year.

Since the beginning of November, the number jumped to at least 26 as of Nov. 28.

On Nov. 23, a 20-meter-long vessel reached the shores of Yurihonjo, a city in Akita Prefecture.

The boat was loaded with lamps to attract fish at night, suggesting it is a fishing vessel.

Eight men aboard were taken into police custody.

“Our boat broke down after we left North Korea about a month and half ago to catch squid,” one was quoted as telling police during the investigation. “We want to go home.”

If the men are confirmed to be in distress, the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau is expected to process the case as “landing as a result of distress” and send them back to their home country via China and other countries. Japan does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea.

In Akita Prefecture, another boat drifted to the beach of Oga three days later.

The bodies of eight individuals were found inside the 7-meter-long ship. The Oga municipal government plans to cremate the remains.

This is not the first year that a number of wooden boats have been noted drifting to the Japanese coast.

In the past five years, 80 cases were reported in 2013. The figure varied from 45 to 66 annually in the following years.

In 2015, 27 bodies were discovered inside the boats. In the following year, 11 bodies turned up.

The Coast Guard believes that most of these vessels were marooned while engaging in illegal fishing.

North Korean fishing boats were spotted operating intermittently in recent years in the fishery called Yamatotai, about 400 kilometers west of Oga Peninsula in the prefecture.

Yamatotai, located in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, is known as a rich fishing ground for squid and crab.

The Coast Guard in July began sending patrol vessels to the area to warn against fishing in Japan’s EEZ through discharging water cannons or other means.

About 820 boats were cleared from the EEZ as a result, but many have returned since September.

A Coast Guard senior official said some fishing vessels ended up in difficulties after being unable to cope with the rough waters in the Sea of Japan with the approach of winter.

“A likely scenario is that boats could not deal with the stormy waters from the end of October, when a cold wind begins blowing in Tokyo, and reached Japanese shores after drifting in the sea for a month or so,” the official said.

Jiro Ishimaru, a journalist with Asia Press International, who is well-versed in the internal affairs of North Korea, said strengthened U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang and its response may be playing a role.

He said his contact in Pyongyang reported earlier this month the “appearance of high-end seafood such as shrimp, crab and sea cucumbers at a local market after such delicacies had not been offered there before.”

Seafood is a vital source of foreign currency for North Korea. Most of the country's catch had been exported to China in the past, its biggest ally.

Now, North Korea is seeking to have luxury ingredients consumed inside the country as much as possible after a sanction banning all of the country’s exports was adopted by the U.N. Security Council in August, Ishimaru speculated.

Revenue from the sales of seafood is apparently given to the military, which effectively oversees fishermen, and the Workers’ Party of Korea.

The Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the party’s mouthpiece, repeatedly carries reports on a directive by authorities to encourage fishing in winter.

“What lies behind the emergence of a flurry of boats in distress is that many fishermen have been forced to go out to sea aboard wooden boats with little safeguard devices on the orders of political leaders,” said Ishimaru, 55.