By Kayo Yamada and Sho Mizuno / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers AKITA/SEOUL — Wooden boats apparently coming from North Korea have been found one after another on or near the Sea of Japan coast. Many of these boats are believed to have engaged in illegal fishing in the area of the Yamato Bank, a good fishing ground in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and other areas.
With the international community stepping up sanctions against Pyongyang, illegal fishing by North Korea is likely to increase further and the Japanese government is tightening security against it.
At around 11:25 p.m. on Nov. 23, the doorbell suddenly rang at a house in Yurihonjo, Akita Prefecture, which faces the Sea of Japan.
The woman living in the house felt suspicious about the sudden late-night visitor, but answered the door anyway. A man who looked Asian spoke to her in a foreign language; he could not communicate in Japanese. She immediately made an emergency call to the police, saying there were suspicious people in the area.
The police officers who arrived at the house later found a wooden boat and eight men and held them in protective custody. The men told the police that they came from North Korea for squid fishing and that they had trouble with their boat, according to sources.
Another woman living nearby said: “I was surprised to hear that some foreigners had suddenly visited a house at midnight. I was relieved that it did not become a serious issue.”
According to the Japan Coast Guard, between 45 and 80 wooden boats that apparently came from the Korean Peninsula have been found off or on Japan’s coastline annually since 2013. This year, 43 such boats had been detected as of Nov. 22.
Since Nov. 15, the number of such boats has been markedly increasing, with at least 13 boats found in Aomori, Akita, Ishikawa, Niigata, Yamagata and other prefectures, and 11 people having been taken into protective custody. In addition, the bodies of 17 people have been found.
Given that a strong northwest seasonal wind blows from the Asian continent toward Japan in winter, the number of such boats is expected to increase further.
Capsized by typhoon?
Most of the boats found off or on Japan’s coastline are fishing boats operating in the Sea of Japan. They are believed to have drifted to Japan after capsizing or for other reasons. Many of them apparently engaged in illegal fishing for Japanese flying squid and other marine life in Japan’s EEZ.
In late October, a squid-fishing boat belonging to the Yamagata prefectural fisheries cooperative traveled south from waters off Hokkaido to the Yamato Bank, and found 300 to 400 boats believed to be North Korea-registered vessels. Trying to avoid collisions, the boat could not even get close to the Yamato Bank, according to the cooperative.
Many fishermen and their families say that an accident could occur anytime and that they are always worried because the crew of such boats would be armed.
The Yamato Bank is a section of seabed 300 kilometers northwest of the Noto Peninsula, the central area of the Sea of Japan. The bank is several tens of kilometers wide and about 200 kilometers long, and runs from southwest to northeast. The bank has a shallow water depth of about 300 meters and is a converging point of warm and cold currents. For those reasons, large amounts of plankton flourish in the waters, making the area a good fishing ground for Japanese flying squid and crabs.
According to the Ogi branch of the Ishikawa Prefecture Fisheries Co-operative Associations, at least six boats were confirmed to have capsized in the sea near the Yamato Bank in late November.
“These boats might have been capsized by a typhoon and drifted to Japan. I’m worried because they could collide with Japanese boats or their nets could become entangled with each other,” said a senior official of the fishing cooperative.
Fishing cooperative associations in each prefecture have separately submitted written requests to the government calling for strengthening patrols of illegal fishing activities in the sea since July.
Small boats far from shore
On a wooden boat found off Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture, on Monday, an item believed to be a pass holder was left behind. Lee Yong Hwa, a professor at Kansai University, said that there were Korean characters on it meaning “Military Unit 264, Military Ship.”
“North Korean fishermen may do fishing on military ships,” Lee added.
With economic sanctions by the international community against North Korea mounting, the country is putting effort into fisheries as a national policy to address food shortages.
The Rodong Sinmun daily newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea said in its Nov. 7 editorial that fisheries are an important front directly linked to people’s lives, strongly encouraging the fishing industry.
On the other hand, according to a parliamentary report in July 2016 presented by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, and various South Korean media reports, North Korea is troubled by a shortage of foreign currency and sells fishing rights in the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan and other areas to Chinese fishing boats.
As a result, North Korean boats cannot fish near their waters. Yet they still have catch targets imposed on them by the military, so are believed to enter Japan’s EEZ to engage in illegal fishing.
Among illegal fishing boats repeatedly engaging in poaching, there are many small boats for coastal fishing that are forced to travel far from the shore. These boats are old and not very durable, and there are believed to be many cases in which their engines break down during their operation.
“North Korea is facing a serious fuel shortage due to the effects of the sanctions resolution adopted by the U.N. Security Council in September,” Ahn Chan Il, the head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies, who is familiar with situations in North Korea, said. “Low-quality fuels often cause engine trouble, so if they encounter an unexpected storm, they are not able to survive it.”