Photo/IllutrationHangul characters are visible on the bow of a wooden fishing boat that washed ashore recently along the coast of Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture. (Kanako Tanaka)

Although espionage fears have spread from coastal villages to top government officials, North Korean defectors say that spies from Pyongyang are not hiding aboard the fishing boats that keep washing ashore in northern Japan.

“There is absolutely no possibility that the fishermen are spies,” said a defector who once worked in the office handling fishing operations under the North Korean military.

Dozens of boats apparently from North Korea have been found adrift or shipwrecked near coastal communities, some carrying the bodies of fishermen.

The boats have fueled anxieties stemming from Pyongyang’s ballistic missile launches and threats of military action from the U.S. administration.

Under these circumstances, some local residents fear North Korea is dispatching the fishing boats so that spies can infiltrate Japanese territory.

In a speech on Dec. 9, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said about the boats washing ashore, “There is the possibility of various issues arising, such as spies entering the nation.”

However, a defector who worked in North Korean military surveillance until several years ago said such an espionage strategy is outdated.

“Using fishing boats to illegally enter Japan ended about 20 years ago,” the defector said.

Government sources said there has been no evidence from the boats confiscated so far that show any connection with the North Korean military or spying activity.

“There is nothing of particular interest in the fishing equipment on the boats or the crew members,” a high-ranking police official said.

The fishing boats may have more to do with the North Korean regime’s desperation for funds and goods to counter the tightening economic sanctions imposed over its ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests.

An editorial that appeared on the website of the Rodong Sinmun, the official organ of the Workers’ Party of Korea, mentioned the importance of the fishing industry. The editorial was dated Nov. 7, the start of the winter fishing season in the Sea of Japan.

“Today, when anti-North Korean schemes by adversarial elements have reached an extreme level, fishing boats are military vessels protecting our homeland and people, and their catches are the bullets and bombs to be sent to the military and people as they rise up in a campaign to protect socialism,” the editorial said.

The defector who once worked in the office handling fishing operations said people in North Korea’s fishing industry are discussing reports about large numbers of North Korean fishing boats washing ashore in Japan.

“Those wooden boats have engines with weak horsepower, so they are prone to malfunctions and sinking when the weather is bad,” the defector said, adding that little has been done to identify the bodies found on the boats or on the shores.

However, the fishermen have no choice but to set sail in bad weather because North Korean leader Kim Jong Un repeatedly stressed the importance of “self-rehabilitation” in dealing with the effects of the economic sanctions at an October party gathering and on other occasions.

The fishing industry is expected to pass along some of its earnings to the upper echelons of the state.

The fishing boats are, in principle, operated by individuals who must give part of their earnings after paying for fuel and the food eaten by crew members.

The military department in charge of logistics hires individuals from the private sector to handle the fishing operations, and the earnings are used for military activities.

One boat that washed ashore on Matsumaekojima island off Hokkaido had a metal plate showing that it belonged to a North Korean military unit.

Sources said it is not unusual for boat owners to register their boats with the military or police organizations to avoid crackdowns by those agencies.

(This article was written by Yoshihiro Makino in Seoul and Shimpachi Yoshida, a senior staff writer in Tokyo.)