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Numerous boats floating in Sea of Japan raise tensions for coast guard, residents

A wooden boat that is believed to have carried eight men is seen at a marina in Yurihonjo, Akita Prefecture, from a Mainichi Shimbun aircraft on Nov. 24, 2017. (Mainichi)

Boats that appear to have come from North Korea are being discovered floating off the coast of the Sea of Japan one after another, leading to increased coast guard and police patrols and unrest among coastal residents.

Overturned boats were found off the coast of Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, and Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, on Nov. 28, and the following day, a boat carrying 10 crew members was confirmed floating off the coast of Matsumae, Hokkaido. As residents in areas where the boats have appeared are expressing concerns, the Japan Coast Guard and prefectural police are stepping up their patrols and calling for people to immediately report such drifting boats and not to approach them.

On the afternoon of Nov. 27, an unmanned wooden boat was found washed up on a rocky area off the coast of Sai, Aomori Prefecture, on Honshu's northern-most Shimokita Peninsula. According to the coast guard, there were letters that appeared to be the Hangul alphabet on the bow of the boat and a tower was fixed to the deck, and spears for catching squid, fishing nets and eating utensils were left aboard the ship.

In Yurihonjo, Akita Prefecture, a wooden boat that appeared to be North Korean also washed ashore on Nov. 23, carrying eight men that were taken into custody by the Akita Prefectural Police's Yurihonjo Police Station. The men reportedly explained, "We departed from North Korea about a month and a half ago to fish for squid. Roughly two weeks later, our engine failed and we drifted here." Police have little reason to believe that the men are defectors or spies.

The boat later went missing for a period of time, but the police and coast guard found what appeared to be the bow, stern and other pieces of the boat near where the boat had arrived on Nov. 28 and collected them. The boat was found under the ocean, badly battered.

According to the coast guard, as of Nov. 27, some 24 wrecked boats that are believed to have come from North Korea have been found in November, including boat fragments. That is a rapid increase from the two boats that arrived in October, and the number is six times that of November 2016. The majority of the boats have appeared along the Honshu coastline of the Hokuriku region and northward. There is a possibility that the crew members set out fishing due to a lack of food, and the simply designed North Korean fishing boats could not hold up against the winter waves, leading to them repeatedly floating to Japan.

The Ninth Regional Coast Guard Headquarters of the coast guard in Niigata said that there is a possibility that the majority of the boats were damaged in the Yamato shallows, the foremost fishing area in the Sea of Japan which stretches from the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture. This is because the number of boats from China and North Korea that have been discovered illegally fishing in that area within Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has been increasing since last year. An official from the regional headquarters said, "They probably were carried by the wind. From now on, the sea will be more turbulent. It's too dangerous to fish in wooden boats this time of year."

Tensions among those involved in fishing and patrolling the Sea of Japan are rising. Along with the possibility that North Korean ships will begin fishing in other areas, the fishermen that wash onto Japanese shores could cause uneasy feelings among residents.

"Niigata was one of the locations of North Korean kidnappings of Japanese citizens," says Niigata Fishery Cooperative Society assistant division chief Akira Kaneko. "It's hard to distinguish fishermen from armed refugees, and it's frightening to encounter people we cannot communicate with on the ocean or the beach." The regional coast guard is receiving help from other regional coast guards for patrols, and is also planning to crack down on illegal fishing in the Yamato shallows and other fishing areas.

Behind the increase of fishing vessels drifting from North Korea appears to be a push from the North Korean leadership to actively engage in fishing. The "Rodong Sinmun," (laborer's newspaper) the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, published an editorial on Nov. 7 stressing that "the battle in the fisheries industry is a fight to protect the socialism system."

The editorial also claimed that "agricultural pursuits have shown great results," and that "the policy of the workers' party should also be realized in the area of marine products." Under this doctrine, it may be that a strict "quota" is being pushed upon public fishing and other related enterprises.

As China has set restrictions on imports of North Korean marine products based on the U.N. Security Council decision to impose sanctions, an increase in the amount of marine products will not lead to foreign income for the North. On the other hand, if a large amount of the products are delivered to the North Korean citizens, it could have the effect of giving the people a sense of security amid strengthening sanctions on the country and raise support for the Pyongyang central leadership. The many boats departing out to sea also may be a show that the country is not yet affected by fuel shortages.

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