In recent weeks, multiple reports of North Korean citizens washing ashore in Japan have prompted a great deal of speculation into the motive behind the recent influx of fishermen from the reclusive state in the waters surrounding the American ally.  Only weeks after a high-profile incident involving a North Korean soldier defecting by running across the military exclusion zone that divides the two Koreas, many have assumed it must be others hoping to flee life under Kim’s oppressive rule, but the reality of the situation is likely more mundane – but telling – than political refugees.

Eight North Korean fishermen were taken into custody in Japan’s Akita Prefecture last Thursday.  These men, who were alive and well, made it clear that they were not defectors, explaining that their vessel suffered engine failure and that they had drifted to the Japanese shoreline community.  Oddly, the small wooden vessel they reportedly used for squid fishing (authorities did confirm the presence of squid on the boat) vanished two days later, during a delay in the investigation into the boat caused by weather.  Police have not indicated any suspicions regarding the disappearance thus far, saying the damaged boat may have sunk in the port or drifted to sea during the storm.

The same day the vessel disappeared, the body of another North Korean man was discovered by Japan’s Coast Guard on Sado Island, which lies a significant distance Southwest of Akita.  The body was found alongside parts of a wooden boat and a number of personal belongings including a pack of cigarettes with Korean writing on it.  The week prior, three North Korean fishermen were rescued from a capsized fishing boat off of Japan’s northern coast.  They were transferred to another North Korean vessel to return home, while Japanese authorities found the bodies of three more lost fishermen.  Four more bodies were found that same week; it is believed they drowned when their fishing boat capsized.

These incidents occurring in such quick succession prompts concerns among many in Japan, who have seen North Korea’s ballistic missile tests first hand, as Kim has directed a number of them directly over the northern region of the island nation.  Concerns about spies, sabotage, terrorism, and the like have been lofted about regarding each of these incidents, but it seems likely that the real nefarious intent behind this influx of North Korean fishermen in the waters off the coast of Japan isn’t any of those things at all: it’s desperation for a profitable bounty on each fishing trip.

The Sea of Japan is considered extremely fertile fishing territory, and while North Korea and Japan maintain no diplomatic relations, it is not uncommon for North Korean and Chinese vessels to illegally fish in those Japanese waters.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of 43 ships, most of them badly damaged, have been discovered on Japan’s coast within the last year alone, with the popular assumption being that a fair number of them originated in North Korea.

From a security standpoint, this could mean there is a growing population of North Korean citizens now operating within Japan, but as increased sanctions from the United Nations and the United States continue to strangle funding from the North Korean economy, the pressure is stronger than ever for the fishermen from Kim’s state to be successful in their fishing endeavors – enough so that it warrants the decision to disregard international law and poach fish in Japanese waters.

The condition of the North Korean soldier who defected on November 13th would seem to indicate dire straits for the North Korean populous.  While Kim tends to ensure his border guards are among the most well fed to ensure the projection of an image of strength, the frail man was riddled with parasitic worms and had only hard corn kernels in his stomach, suggesting rations are extremely limited throughout the ranks of Kim’s military. Extrapolating from that reasonable assumption, it seems likely that pressure is increasing on all avenues of food and income the North Korean populous relies on.

As difficult as it may be to suspect, this rash of dead and stranded North Korean fishermen finding their way to Japanese shores may be indicative of a populous being emboldened by desperation.  While this could mean North Korea’s resolve may soon falter, desperation is a dangerous thing – especially when helmed by a man many would characterize as a despot.


Image courtesy of the Associated Press