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Suspected N. Korea boats increasingly drifting in Sea of Japan, washing ashore

Police officers check inside a wooden boat on Nov. 13, 2018 that was washed ashore in the northwestern Japan city of Akita. (Mainichi/Shun Kawaguchi)

AKITA/YAMAGATA/NIIGATA -- Wooden boats believed to originate from North Korea have been found drifting in the Sea of Japan or washing up on Japan's coast at a rapid pace this year.

According to the Japan Coast Guard (JCG), 96 such cases had been reported this year as of noon on Nov. 13. Officials say even more vessels may arrive in the winter when seasonal northwest wind picks up. This could push the total number of cases past last year's record of 104 -- the highest figure since the JCG started collecting statistics in 2013.

Twelve bodies have been found on these "ghost boats" this year -- fewer than the 35 found in 2017. This year more vessels have drifted toward Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido with 39 boats confirmed in the prefecture this year, compared with six last year. It is believed the boats became lost at sea during squid fishing and other operations. The Fisheries Agency says that the strong Tsushima Current has caused sea temperatures to rise from this spring, which may have moved annual squid fishing grounds farther north.

At the same time, many members of Japan's fishing industry have spotted fishing vessels, believed to be from North Korea, operating in Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the rich Yamato shallows fishing area in the center of the Sea of Japan.

Yamagata Prefecture's fisheries cooperative association in northwestern Japan has complained that these vessels have become an obstacle for squid fishing, as fishermen on the boats have thrown rocks at Japanese fishing vessels or otherwise obstructed them.

Association head Shoshi Honma and other officials visited the Fisheries Agency on Nov. 2. They demanded intensification of efforts to crack down on these vessels that "endanger fishermen and have a serious negative impact on fishing."

As for drifting vessels, officials in the central Japan prefecture of Niigata, which lies on the Sea of Japan coast, are calling for people to stay away from washed-up boats and instead inform the police or the JCG. Ten vessels have been found drifting off the prefecture or washed ashore on the local coast this year.

One wooden boat, believed to originate from North Korea, was found on Nov. 12 on the Sea of Japan coast in the northwestern city of Akita. A Mainichi Shimbun reporter was walking near the site in search of anyone with information on another "ghost boat" that had washed ashore in December 2017. The reporter called Akita Prefectural Police after coincidently being notified of a newly arrived boat by a fisherman. The boat had washed up on a sandy beach about 6 kilometers southwest of the Akita Prefectural Government headquarters.

The wooden boat was upturned. It measured about 12 meters in length and 1.4 meters in height. The bottom part of the boat was made from a flat board about 9 centimeters thick. It was painted on the outside, and the inside was covered with a material similar to Styrofoam. A Korean character in the Hangul script indicating the consonant sound "J" was written on the bow, along with a Korean character which is pronounced "Se" and the number "811513."

The Mainichi reporter cautiously knocked on the portside of the boat to check if there were any survivors, but there was no response. The prefectural police searched the site, including with helicopters, and checked inside the boat. However, they have not found any survivors or bodies of the crew.

(Japanese original by Shun Kawaguchi, Akita Bureau, Yujiro Futamura, Yamagata Bureau and Yuma Hori, Niigata Bureau)

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