North Korea’s ‘Ghost Ships’ Reveal Maritime Failures, PRC Role

 In China, North Korea, CIS, Japan, Oceans

Hundreds of North Korean-flagged ships, with bodies on board or some­times aban­doned, have washed up along the Sea of Japan in recent years, accord­ing to news reports. The so-called ghost ships come ashore on Japan’s coast­line and increas­ing­ly along Russia’s coast, accord­ing to a mid-September 2020 report by, a Russian-lan­guage online news­pa­per.

Japanese author­i­ties report that more than 500 ghost boats have landed on the nation’s coast in the past five years, with 158 in 2019, report­ed. The uniden­ti­fied bodies found aboard are buried in unmarked graves in Japanese and Russian coastal towns, the online report said.

Investigations in 2020 impli­cate the People’s Republic of China “in this dark his­to­ry and its [the PRC’s] exor­bi­tant demand for marine bio-resources,” report­ed. The PRC’s fleet exploits North Korean sailors, a July report by the non­prof­it Global Fishing Watch revealed.

The Sea of Japan’s waters are divid­ed among Japan, North Korea, Russia and South Korea. Squid fish­ing is espe­cial­ly impor­tant for North Korea to pro­vide pro­tein to feed its cit­i­zens, accord­ing to experts.

A cash-strapped North Korea, how­ev­er, has sold its coastal fish­ing rights to the PRC and netted an esti­mat­ed U.S. $50 mil­lion to U.S. $75 mil­lion a year in licens­ing fees, as sanc­tions have tight­ened against the regime in response to its ongo­ing devel­op­ment of nuclear and bal­lis­tic weapons, news orga­ni­za­tions report­ed.

Better-equipped Chinese ships har­vest­ed more than 160,000 tons of squid valued at U.S. $440 mil­lion between 2017 and 2019, which is more than the com­bined squid catch of Japan and South Korea during that period, accord­ing to Global Fishing Watch, which used satel­lite tech­nol­o­gy to ana­lyze marine traf­fic in Northeast Asia. The non­prof­it doc­u­ment­ed 900 Chinese ships in 2017 and 700 in 2018 in North Korean waters, CNN report­ed.

North Korean fish­er­men have been forced far­ther off­shore to fish for them­selves and the regime, which takes a hefty per­cent­age of the catch. They often oper­ate in small, wooden boats not designed for the open sea.

“It is too dan­ger­ous for them to work in the same waters as the Chinese trawlers,” Jungsam Lee, co-author of the Global Fishing Watch report, told CNN. “That’s why they’re pushed to work in Russian and Japanese waters and that explains why some of North Korea’s dam­aged ves­sels showed up on the beach­es of Japan.”

Some North Korean fish­er­men may commit sui­cide at sea rather than starve, a North Korean defec­tor told Hakai Magazine in late September 2020. The mag­a­zine is pub­lished by the Tula Foundation, a Canada-based non­prof­it that focus­es on coastal sci­ence.

The ghost ships serve as sym­bols of North Korea’s mar­itime fail­ures, Robert Winstanley-Chesters, an expert on North Korean fish­ing at the University of Leeds in England, told the mag­a­zine. They reveal that North Korea “is des­per­ate for food resources, and des­per­ate enough to put coastal com­mu­ni­ties at real risk, [and] break all the rules to poach fish­ing stocks.”

North Korean poach­ers are also crowd­ing Japanese waters to the extent that Japanese fish­er­men in recent years have begun evac­u­at­ing the area “to avoid unnec­es­sary clash­es and com­pe­ti­tion,” Masayuki Komatsu, a retired offi­cial at the Fisheries Agency of Japan, told Hakai. (Pictured: Sixty fish­er­men aboard this North Korean boat were res­cued after it col­lid­ed with a Japanese patrol vessel and sank off Japan’s Noto Peninsula in October 2019.)

North Korea also leases its flag to Chinese ves­sels to fish in Japanese and Russian waters, accord­ing to It’s not known how many Chinese fish­er­men are among the poach­ers.

Moreover, the North Korean boats con­tin­ue to be at risk. “If Chinese boats are oper­at­ing in North Korean coastal waters, then that will con­tin­ue to push North Korean ships fur­ther out,” James Brown, a polit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Temple University, Japan Campus, told Hakai.

Indo-Pacific Defense Forum source|articles

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