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FEATURE: The hellish life of a North Korean fisherman

Mysterious “ghost ships” have been washing up on the western shores of Japan over the few past years, thought to be fishing vessels from North Korea. Often they carry only the decomposing bodies of the fisherman who manned them. Why?

PortandTerminal.com, October 7, 2019

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Today Japan rescued 60 North Korean crew members from a fishing boat that sank after it collided with a Japanese patrol boat that was chasing it out of Japanese waters, the Japan Coast Guard said.

A Japanese official said the North Korean boat was fishing illegally in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Japan, as well as Russia, have also reported numerous “Ghost Ships” washing up on their shores over the past few years. The ghost ships are believed to be North Korean fishing boats that had experienced either weather-related or technical trouble that ultimately doomed their crews. Many of the boats that wash up contain only the decomposing bodies of their starved crew of fishermen.

Illegal fishing and dead bodies of fishermen on beaches. Why?

What’s going on with North Korea’s fishing industry?

There is one common thread that runs through both the recent illegal fishing incidents and the Ghost Ships that periodically wash up on Japan’s shores: Greed and Fear in North Korea.


The North Korean famine was a period of mass starvation together with a general economic crisis from 1994 to 1998 in North Korea that killed as many as 3.5 million.

North Korea is desperate for two things; hard currency and food. Given a choice though between feeding its own people and propping up its corrupt regime with foreign currency, North Korea has demonstrated already that it will let its people starve. Greed always wins in North Korea.

Many alive today in North Korea remember first hand the horror of what locally is called the “March of Suffering” which is believed to have killed anywhere between 240,000 and 3,500,000 North Koreans. Either number for a country of just 21 million people is staggering. Experts now are worried about the return of mass hunger.

This week the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its “Needs and Priorities 2019” report for its work in North Korea, claiming the food security situation in the country is expected to get worse as natural disasters and poor management continue to go unaddressed.

North Korea “sold the family silver” to China

The upswing in North Korean fishing in foreign waters owes to the sanctions-battered North’s sale of fishing rights along its coast to China to secure desperately needed foreign currency. The South Korean government estimated in 2016 that Pyongyang earned tens of millions of dollars from the deal.

But with Chinese ships now operating along its coast, North Korean fishermen are forced to risk venturing farther out, often into foreign waters. It’s there that they bump into Japanese and Russian security as recent headlines this month have shown.

Since September, Russia has apprehended more than 800 North Koreans fishing within its exclusive economic zone. A ship and motorboat seizure late that month turned up about 30,000 kg of illegally caught squid, according to Russian media. In another incident, Russian border guards were injured as crew members of a detained vessel resisted arrest.

South Korea has seen a surge since this summer in North Korean fishing operations near the Northern Limit Line, the disputed maritime boundary between the two Koreas. The number of illegal crossings swelled from 51 in all of 2018 to more than 400 so far this year, data from the South Korean military shows.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, probably one of the very few well-fed North Koreans in his country

The shift to offshore and distant-water fishing has been actively encouraged by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The Korean Central News Agency reported late last year on inspections of military-run offshore fishery stations by Kim, who said the fish-filled cold storage facilities looked “like a treasure mountain and gold bars.” Stealing fish is cheap. Selling the catch to China is easy.

It has been said that Pyongyang smuggles its illegal fish catches into China to meet seafood demand there.

Forced to choose between food and hard currency, Kim Jong Un has already shown that his regime is prepared to let its citizens starve in exchange for foreign currency to keep his ridiculous and cruel regime propped up.


Police officers check an open wooden boat that washed ashore on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, that is believed to have originated in North Korea. | KYODO

They are called ghost ships because they are usually found empty or with only corpses on board off Japan’s western coast.

Plainly put, North Korean fishermen live and work under a brutal dictatorship that burdens them with ever-larger catch quotas under pain of “punishment” for failing their supreme leader. They are under-provisioned, hungry and terrified of failure. A few survive. Most ask to be returned home to North Korea out of fear of reprisal against their families were they to defect.

Many of the ships have only dead bodies or skeletons on board but in recent months, several have been found with their desperate North Korean crew still alive.

BBC International News

The body of a North Korean fisherman that washed up onto Russia’s far east coast.

Most of the bodies are male, although many of the bodies are so badly decomposed that investigators can’t be 100% certain.

“Quite often, North Korean fishing boats set off on expeditions with the minimum fuel necessary due to fuel shortages. It could be that a growing number of boats drifted away unintentionally and their crew became unable to return to the North.”

The crew of one North Korean fishing vessel who survived. Most don’t.

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