“Are these really fishing boats, or are they spy ships?”
Japan is enhancing coastal security amid the sudden increase this fall in the number of wooden vessels, believed to be of North Korean origin, drifting off the coast of Japan and making landfall along the Japanese coast. This has all unexpectedly thrown into sharp relief Japan’s unpreparedness to respond to North Korean infiltration or attack.
On December 9, the Hokkaido police arrested a 45-year-old ship captain and self-professed North Korean national and two other men. They were suspected to be the same crew which, also on a wooden North Korean vessel, made landfall in November on a tiny uninhabited island off the coast of Matsumae town in Hokkaido and stole a generator.
On December 8, a day before their arrest, the same three men had attempted to escape in waters off the coast of the port of Hakodate by cutting the ropes binding their vessel to a patrol boat. However, the patrol boat prevented the North Koreans from escaping. The Hokkaido police, who had come to ask the men to submit to voluntary questioning, opted instead for a compulsory search in light of the possibility of further escape attempts.
There had originally been a 10-man crew onboard. The three men were arrested on the charge of collusion and theft of the generator, valued at some JPY650,000. The men shouted loudly and resisted at the time of their arrest by investigators. Once on land, the suspects were transported to Hokkaido police facilities inside the city of Hakodate. On board the ship were found a generator believed to be the one stolen from an emergency shelter on the uninhabited island, as well as a television and other items.
On December 9, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo spoke of the recurring incidents of vessels believed to be of North Korean origin washing up along the Japan coast. It was his understanding, he said, that in actuality military-owned ships were also drifting ashore.
“Cognizant of the possibility, among others, that some of the people on these ships might be North Korean agents, the police, Self-Defense Forces, and coast guard are working in tandem to deal with this situation to the fullest extent,” Suga emphasized.
Suga indicated that his remarks followed the discovery that the wooden vessel subjected to compulsory search in Matsumae, Hokkaido, on December 9 belonged to the “North Korean Military 854 Corps.”
The entrance to the emergency shelter on the uninhabited island, intended for use by fishermen, was pried open. A television, refrigerator, rice cooker, small motorcycle, and solar panel used for the lighthouse perched atop the highest point of the island were all missing. Local fishermen were unable to conceal their surprise, saying that such a thing had never happened before.
In North Korea, the military is believed to be engaged also in farming, fishing, and other production activities—and they are not thought to be above theft either.
There were 28 confirmed cases in November of wooden vessels thought to be of North Korean origin drifting near or ashore Japan. According to Japanese coast guard statistics, November saw the most such cases of any month in the past four years.
The coast guard also reports that, as of December 4, there had been a total of 64 cases of vessels drifting near or onto the Japanese coastline in 2017. A total of 18 dead bodies, believed to be those of North Koreans, had been found onboard the ships or floating in the water nearby, and 42 other people had been recovered alive. There were 80 drifting-vessel cases in Japanese waters in 2013, 65 in 2014, 45 in 2015, and 66 in 2016.
Despite the increasing size of ocean waves going into November and December, it is thought that the “winter fishing battle” to secure food is what causes North Koreans to force simple vessels to operate under such impossible conditions.
Economic sanctions imposed by the international community are having an effect, which comes in addition to the chronic food shortage inside North Korea, deepening the already severe crisis in that country.
The November 24 edition of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party of Korea, announced the results of the “winter fishing battle” in an article intended to encourage fishermen to greater action. The North Korean media calls fishing a “battle” and fishermen “warriors.”
The issue of vessels drifting ashore on the Japanese coast garnered widespread coverage on November 23, when a wooden vessel with eight crew members drifted ashore at Yurihonjo, in Akita prefecture. Speaking in Korean, the crew said that they had “come from North Korea” after being shipwrecked while out fishing. All eight wanted to be sent back to North Korea immediately.
According to the Japanese coast guard, the November 23 incident was the first time that a ship which had made landfall from North Korea had had any surviving crew members aboard since January of 2015.
On November 24, the day after the ship was found in Yurihonjo, a vessel was discovered drifting off the coast of Oga city, also in Akita. There were eight dead bodies aboard the ship.
On November 27, ships were discovered off of the coasts of Fukaura town and Sai village, both in Aomori prefecture.
On the 29th, the ship mentioned above was discovered drifting off Matsumae, Hokkaido, with a crew of 10.
On December 2, a capsized vessel and two dead bodies were found along the shore of Sado city in Niigata prefecture.
On December 4, one dead body and some wooden debris were found off of Nikaho city in Akita prefecture. On the same day, three dead bodies were found alongshore Tsuruoka city in Yamagata prefecture.
The dead bodies found in Yamagata were wearing black sweaters and parkas. Two of the dead were wearing work clothes with badges on the left breast bordered in gold and bearing portraits of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung.
But were the dead men just fishermen? The fishing boat which drifted ashore in Akita was tied up on the night of November 23 along a breakwater near the Honjo Marina mooring facility, but by the morning of the 25th the vessel had disappeared. Prefectural police had been waiting for the weather to improve in order to inspect the boat’s cargo, but the vessel vanished and all the evidence was gone.
Responding to this situation, Akita Governor Norihisa Satake said, “Are these really fishing boats, or are they spy ships? Were there really only eight people aboard? We have got to be able to make a thorough investigation of these vessels. When they can be moved, we have to do so and preserve the evidence. [By letting this boat slip away] we have caused citizens to feel uneasy, and we have lost an opportunity to make an investigation.”
The apprehension does not end there.
Pointing out his own concerns about the possibility of bioterrorism, Japanese Diet lower house member Shigeharu Aoyama, speaking during a House of Councillors committee meeting on November 30, said: “It is common knowledge among UN (United Nations) experts that North Korea is in possession of weaponized smallpox virus. If even one person who comes ashore is infected, then the virus will spread [in Japan] without limit unless vaccinations have been administered.”
Wooden vessels are difficult to pick up on radar, and there is the danger that they will be used to land armed refugees and terrorist spies. It is now understood that this problem cannot be handled by leaving it solely to the police and coast guard.
In the event of open conflict with North Korea, there will be countless people fleeing from the North to Japan. Even though it is expected that there will be North Korean operatives among the refugees, due to constitutional constraints and the inadequacy of the statutory law, Japan today stands unready to deal with the threat.
Tooru Kurosawa, senior staff writer, the Sankei Shimbun
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)