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Fish may explain the North Korean 'ghost ships' with dead bodies reaching Japan


Mysterious North Korean ships, some of which contain bodies, keep washing up on Japanese shores, and no one is quite sure why.

As many as 95 of these vessels have been found on Japanese beaches in 2017. Most of them are dilapidated husks, unworthy of sailing the dangerous seas off Japan.

While many are empty, others have contained bodies with North Korean paraphernalia on them. Some of the bodies were skeletonized due to prolonged exposure at sea.

"The fishing grounds near the coast have been pretty much over-fished," said Bruce Klinger, the former CIA deputy division chief for Korea and current senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

"So, in order to get the fish, the protein source for the North Korean population, the government is directing the ships go even further out to sea," he added. "And they’re not equipped for the rough seas and strong currents in the Sea of Japan."

These ghost ships have been discovered on Japanese shores since 2013, but this year's numbers are unprecedented.

The general consensus among experts is that these ships are fishing vessels sent out on the Sea of Japan's dangerous waters to help alleviate North Korea's decades-long food shortage.

Klingner noted that the waters off North Korea suffer from over-fishing, leading to the government forcing vessels further out to sea, many of which simply are not outfitted for such a voyage.

Many of the ships that have washed up in Japan are little more than ramshackle life boats. By the time they hit shore, most are severely damaged, if not completely destroyed.

There may also be a human element to the phenomenon. North Korea has only so many experienced fishermen, leading some analysts to suspect these ships are being crewed by North Korean soldiers with no experience who have been forced into service.

There may also be a criminal factor in the mystery. North Korea is not allowed to sell seafood on the open market per global sanctions, so they may be sending their ships deep into international waters to find an illegal workaround.

"Some have speculated that the vessels are going out to the high seas to have mid-sea rendezvous with foreign fishing vessels, and then selling the North Korean seafood, and its [then] re-labeled as Japanese or [another] nationality," Klingner said.

The increased ghost ship phenomenon coincides with increasingly provocative actions on the part of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's government.

Several missile tests and the ongoing research into its illicit nuclear weapons program have made North Korea even more of an international pariah than before, a feat that few would have thought possible a year ago.

President Trump enacted a litany of sanctions against North Korea this year, including a measure which freezes the assets of companies doing business with North Korea and kicks them off the U.S. financial system.

These measures, along with other international sanctions, have made it remarkably difficult for North Korea to generate revenue.

Officials hope this will make it difficult for Pyongyang to continue to fund its massive military and weapons programs.

But with Kim unlikely to have a change of heart any time soon, experts say Japan can expect to see more ghost ships washing up in the near future.

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