Japanese authorities say they will will launch an investigation into boats washing ashore carrying decomposing bodies. The boats are thought to be from North Korean army fishing operations.
Japanese coast guard officials said on Tuesday that they had found a dozen rickety wooden fishing boats carrying decomposing bodies since October, sparking speculation that the vessels could be North Korean fishing boats gone astray.
The coast guard has not been able to identify the nationality of the 22 bodies - including five skulls - washed ashore since October, but have found signs written in Korean, with Japanese television footage showing a sign identifying one boat as belonging to a North Korean army unit.
The primitive boats were motorized, but did not have a GPS system, the coast guard said.
North Korean army fishing operations
Isolated North Korea has sought to increase fishing to earn foreign currency and provide food to the army and government officials in a country often hit by famine.
Army defectors and academics say the Korean People's Army is heavily involved in food production and fishing to these ends.
"North Korean army units and security agencies are running many businesses to earn foreign currency from mining gold to catching fish on the west and east coasts," Lee So-yeon, a North Korean army defector, told Reuters.
Experts believe the "ghost boats" washing ashore in Japan are the outcome of a push by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who has prioritized expanding his hermit state's fishing operations.
"Kim Jong Un has been promoting the fisheries, which could explain why there are more fishing boats going out," Kim Do-hoon, a professor of fisheries science at Bukyong National University in Busan, told Reuters.
"But North Korean boats perform really poorly, with bad engines, risking lives to go far to catch more. Sometimes they drift and fishermen starve to death," he added.
Over the years, North Korean fishing boats have also washed ashore in Japan and Russia, but the recent spike may result from this new drive to catch more seafood.
The main season for catching squid, sandfish and king crab runs October to February, which could be another reason for the spike in ghost boats.
cw/tj (AP, Reuters)