The remains of 25 people have been found aboard 11 wooden boats that have washed up on the coast of northern Japan in the last two months. Several of the dilapidated vessels bore Korean characters and Japanese police believe the victims were either fishermen unable to return to their ports in North Korea or defectors attempting to escape the repressive regime.
A spokesman for the Coast Guard confirmed that words in “hangul” were identified on some of the boats – one bore the characters for Korean People’s Army No. 325 in red – and most were carrying fishing equipment.
All the human remains aboard the boats were in an advanced state of decay and two of the bodies had no heads, indicating that they had been adrift for a considerable period of time.
One of the most recent discoveries was off the port of Wajima, on Japan’s northern coast. The 40-foot wooden boat contained 10 decomposing bodies, nets and fishing gear.
The port is about 530 miles from the east coast of the Korean peninsula.
“There have been so many purges at the top in North Korea, it is very probable that the fear has filtered down through society so that everybody is worried“, said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.
North Korean defectors have braved the ocean in small boats in the past,with nine people rescued from a foundering fishing boat off northern Japan by the Coast Guard in September 2011.
The three men, three women and three young children told Japanese authorities that they had spent five days at sea after getting lost as they tried to defect to South Korea.
They were subsequently permitted to continue on to seek asylum in Seoul.
An alternative suggestion is that the vessels were fishing boats that were not able to return to their home ports in North Korea, perhaps after experiencing engine malfunctions or poor weather, and their crews died at sea.
Experts say it is unlikely that the vessels were being used in an attempt to infiltrate Pyongyang’s agents into Japan or to smuggle drugs ashore, although the tactic has been used by the North in the past.
“I would say that defectors would be the most likely explanation, and the fact that there have been so many cases in such a short space of time is worrying because it suggests there is serious instability just below the surface in North Korea“, said Mr Okumura.