Authorities in North Korea have reportedly banned the use of small wooden boats for deep-sea fishing, particularly in the waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan, after a series of cases in which the boats have drifted to Japanese shores, sometimes carrying dead fishermen.
The “ghost ships” have sometimes even been found with living crewmembers on board. According to the BBC, many have suggested that the ghost ships are the failed attempts of North Koreans to defect, but in the cases where the living were found aboard, they asked to be sent back to North Korea.
Sources say that any North Koreans found by Japanese patrol boats and sent back to North Korea will receive harsh punishment. The new policy begins in May, and as most fishermen who live on North Korea’s eastern coast use small wooden boats, many are beginning to worry about their livelihood.
“Fishing cooperatives on the eastern coast received directives from the Ministry of Fisheries. Fishing out of small wooden boats is to be banned from May, just when squid fishing season begins,” said a source from North Hamgyong province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on Saturday.
“The ban specifically outlaws fishing in the East Sea on wooden boats with [engines of] less than 100 horse power,” said the source.
Japanese media have reported that the increased quota North Korean requires its fisherman to provide the state is causing many to take bigger risks at sea. The source indicated that this is a major factor for why so many of the small boats get lost.
“[They] are pushing themselves to fulfill the Central Committee’s fishing assignment, so that’s why last year there were dozens of boats found drifting near Japan last year. [The ghost ships] are humiliating for North Korea, so that might be the reason why [they are coming up with this new policy].”
But the suddenly announced new policy would blindside fishermen in the area who have spent time and money preparing for the upcoming fishing season.
“They fixed their boats and bought new gear on credit. Now they are resentful of the ban because they have to repay their debts.”
As some of the boats that wash up in Japan have contained dead fishermen that likely expired as a result of starvation and exposure, the policy might seem to be a prudent move on the North Korean government’s part to discourage unsafe fishing practices, but the source does not believe this to be the case.
“[The policy] says nothing about fishermen’s safety. They just say they are banning deep-sea fishing. They are threatening the fishermen with up to five years in a correctional camp if their boats are found [by the Japanese] in the open sea or in Japanese waters, regardless of their reason [for being there],” the source said.
A second source, also from North Hamgyong, said the ban will limit the fishermen by forcing them to fish only in North Korea’s coastal waters.
“Resources in North Korean seas are exhausted,” said the source.
The source said that the fishermen had been venturing out further because fish stocks off the coast have been depleted.
“The fishermen can catch something more valuable like pollack, snow crab or jumbo shrimp in the open waters near Russia and Japan,” the source said.
The source believes the ban will have devastating effects, as most, if not all fishing businesses are small operations using low-powered small wooden boats.
“[The ban] will be fatal to the livelihood of fishing families,” the source said.
NK News reported in December that ghost ships found in Japan became common over the past six years, but each year increasing numbers have been found. In 2017, 66 ghost ships were discovered, but in 2018 more than 100 were found.
The U.S.-based North Korea analysis website pointed out that the majority of the ghost ships are simply abandoned at sea, often in an organized manner. Most have been stripped of their engines and few contain any caught fish, indicating that these were transferred to a rescue boat. Only a small percentage of the boats found in Japan have fishermen, alive or dead, on board.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong