At least four so-called “ghost ships” have washed up on Japanese shores this month, and some contain mysterious skeletons.
In November alone, 15 dead bodies and skeletons have been discovered, and 11 living North Koreans have been rescued and returned to the Hermit Kingdom.
Authorities believe the old boats are from North Korea, though it’s unclear whether the passengers were defectors or men forced to fish in treacherous waters to feed an increasingly starving population.
In the most recent case, eight skeletons were discovered aboard a wooden boat that appeared on the Miyazawa beach of the Japanese island Honshu on Monday, according to the Akita Coast Guard. A Japanese coast guard official told the Associated Press one of the skeletons was holding currency from North Korea.
The skeleton-filled boat is reminiscent of other bizarre cases of ships and debris washing ashore on Japan’s beaches in recent years. And the mysterious vessels are popping up more frequently since 2013.
On Nov. 15, three living North Koreans and three dead bodies were sent back to the country after the Japanese coast guard found a boat off Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture. Two days later, on Nov. 17, another boat washed ashore in the same location with four dead bodies on board. On Nov. 23, a boat washed up on the shores of Akita prefecture, and eight living North Koreans were rescued after they had been stranded with a squid catch. On Nov. 27, eight skeletons were discovered aboard a wooden boat.
Satoru Miyamoto, a professor at Seigakuin University and expert on North Korea told CNN: “It’s after Kim Jong Un decided to expand the fisheries industry as a way of increasing revenue for the military. They are using old boats manned by the military, by people who have no knowledge about fishing. It will continue.”
In 2015, at least 12 “ghost ships” were found to have dead bodies on board. Experts believed they were either bodies of defectors or fisherman who had been forced to search for food in dangerous waters amid North Korean food shortages.
In January, 25 North Koreans were rescued from a sinking ship near the Goto Islands in Southwest Japan. Another North Korean boat came to collect the rescued people.
The U.K. Express reported in May that rotting corpses are often so decomposed, it’s nearly impossible to find a cause of death. Some of the eerie, rusted-out ships carry pieces of North Korean flags. Autopsies sometimes find the crew members have been dead for months.
Most of the old boats are ill equipped and do not have GPS devices or modern navigation tools. And they’re often manned by inexperienced and desperate crews that are forced into deep waters.
It is believed North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is increasingly pressuring the North Korean people to search for food and meet nearly impossible fishing quotas. He reportedly sends citizens and soldiers who have little to no experience in fishing out to treacherous seas to help feed North Korea’s starving millions.
While his people starve to death, Kim, who lives a lavish lifestyle, is known to indulge in pricey alcohol and imported cheeses.
In May, Jiro Ishimaru of Asia Press said: “When Kim Jong-un issues an order no one can ignore it, even if he is asking them to do the impossible. That means inexperienced soldiers go out to sea, even in terrible conditions and with no idea what they are doing.”
North Korea experienced its worst drought in 16 years this year, which means worsened food shortages for the isolated nation. According to recent U.N. estimates, two in five North Koreans are undernourished and two-thirds of the population depends on food aid.
North Korea notoriously spends the bulk of its budget on weapons development rather than feeding its own starving people. The Hermit Kingdom spent about one-quarter of its gross domestic product on its military between 2004 and 2014.
Meanwhile, Kim has been obsessively expanding the nation’s nuclear weapons program and firing ballistic missiles dangerously close to Japan. He test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile Wednesday at 3 a.m. local time that traveled about 600 miles at 745 miles per hour and landed in the sea to the west of Japan. The missile managed to fly 2,800 miles into space before it made its descent.
President Trump, who designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism last week, told reporters at the White House Tuesday: “A missile was launched a little while ago from North Korea. I will only tell you that we will take care of it. It’s a situation that we will handle.”
After President Trump spoke, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the latest launch “went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken. It’s a research and development effort on their part, to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically.”