Ghost ships believed to be from North Korea wash ashore in Japan

iStock/Thinkstock(MATSUMAE, Japan) — Several wooden boats — some carrying skeletons — have mysteriously washed ashore in Japan in recent weeks. Authorities are still investigating where the so-called “ghost ships” came from, but experts say all signs point to North Korea.

The Japanese coast guard on Thursday recovered one decrepit vessel drifting off the western coast of Matsumae town on the northern island of Hokkaido. Ten men found aboard the wooden ship identified themselves as North Koreans and said they were taking refuge at an island nearby due to rough weather.

On Monday, the partially decomposed bodies of eight men were discovered on a rickety wooden boat on the coast of Japan’s Akita prefecture, which faces North Korea across the Sea of Japan. The coast guard first spotted the unidentified ship Saturday, but rough seas prevented them from approaching it at the time.

“The coast guard and police have to cooperate to step up sea patrols around Japan,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters at a press briefing Tuesday night when asked about the grim find. “The government intends to improve this to ensure we can guard against suspicious boats or people arriving in Japan.”

Suga declined to make any speculations on the vessel’s origin, saying the investigation is ongoing.

The coast guard and Akita prefecture officials did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for comment Saturday.

Last week, Akita prefecture police officers rescued eight unknown men from another wooden ship seen drifting near Yurihonjo city’s marina at night on Nov. 23, according to Suga.

The men, who appeared to be healthy, told police they are from North Korea and their ship broke down while they were fishing, causing them to drift all the way to Japan’s west coast. Authorities are investigating their claims, Suga said.

A week earlier, on Nov. 15, the coast guard rescued three men from a capsized vessel off Japan’s Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture. The men told authorities they are North Korean and they asked to return home, Suga said. The incident is being investigated.

While Japan has no formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, Suga said there were efforts underway to send the men back home.

The “ghost ships” aren’t a new phenomenon, experts say. Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan, estimates about 500 crude vessels thought to be North Korean have washed up on Japan’s coastline since 2011, and more of them will likely appear in the months ahead, he said.

“What it signifies to me is the conditions in North Korea are exceptionally grim,” Kingston told ABC News in an interview in Tokyo.

According to Kingston, Japan has seen a surge in suspected North Korean ships arriving on its shores since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged the expansion of the fisheries industry to counter the nation’s well-documented food shortages. Among North Korea’s 24.9 million people, an estimated 18 million are dependent on government food rations, while 10.5 million are believed to be undernourished, according to a report published by the United Nations in March.

Most of the people found aboard these ragged ships — dead or alive — are believed to be inexperienced fishermen who struggle to navigate the region’s rough seas in the fall and winter. There are suspicions that some intend to defect or are attempted refugees fleeing the dire conditions at home, Kingston said.

“Come November, this is really dangerous water,” he said of the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea.

Another factor could be North Korea’s reported sale of its fishing rights in its coastal waters to China, its top trading partner and diplomatic ally.

“So Chinese fishing trawlers are going through the coastal waters of North Korea, and this is pushing North Korean fishermen out beyond their comfort zone into the dangerous Sea of Japan, and some of them aren’t surviving,” Kingston said.

Satoru Miyamoto, a professor at Japan’s Seigakuin University who specializes in North Korea, said there’s evidence that the North Korean economy is actually improving, despite decades of international isolation and sanctions. Healthier, lower-calorie foods such as fish are in demand among North Korea’s small but growing upper class, he said.

“Seafood is popular in North Korea. So many people, like farmers, become fishermen with the seasons,” Miyamoto told ABC News in an email, adding that many boats of less-experienced fishermen wash up on Japanese coastlines due to apparent accidents.

The demand for North Korean seafood was also fueled by China’s wealthy, Miyamoto said, until the United Nations Security Council in September banned the import of North Korean seafood.

“I’m sure there are many that are sinking,” Kingston said of the boats. “So it’s probably a lot worse than we actually know.”

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