Sanctions May Be Triggering Flow of North Korean Boats to Japan

  • More than 20 fishing vessels drifted to Japan in November
  • North Korea sold fishing rights to China for currency: reports
A North Korean fishing boat drifting near an uninhabited island off Matsumae, Hokkaido on Nov. 29. Photographer: Kyodo News via Getty Images

More than 20 North Korean fishing boats drifted to Japan last month, as sanctions prompt the isolated regime’s fishermen to venture farther from shore in rickety wooden vessels.

North Korea is being forced to bolster domestic food production as its access to foreign markets and currency is limited by United Nations sanctions imposed over its nuclear and missile programs, according to Hideshi Takesada, a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo. That effort is being hampered by the sale of fishing rights to China, pushing its citizens to head for more distant fishing grounds, he said.

The rogue state has sold fishing rights in the Sea of Japan to China to earn foreign currency, Yonhap News reported in August, citing an unidentified intelligence official. This brings leader Kim Jong Un an annual $75 million, the news agency said.

Read more about the UN’s discussion of sanctions here

While dozens of the drifting boats are observed every year, last month saw a surge in numbers, with some fishermen surviving an ordeal that often proves more fatal. Japan’s coastguard recorded 24 incidents involving drifting boats Nov. 1-27, compared with 66 for the whole of last year.

For survivors to make it ashore is unusual -- recent arrivals are the first to do so in almost three years.

Eight people who said they were fishing for squid were taken in for questioning last week in Akita Prefecture, on the northwestern coast of Japan’s main island. This week, ten more were found aboard a boat in waters off the northern island of Hokkaido.

A damaged wooden boat is seen at a marina in Akita on Nov. 24.

Photographer: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

"More of them are sailing to Japan’s exclusive economic zone, to the Yamato Bank, which offers the best fishing grounds in the Sea of Japan," said Takesada, an author of a book on North Korea. "There is a cash economy where you can sell excess fish and agricultural products, so even before the effect of the recent sanctions, there has been an incentive to venture out further."

Japan will probably face a headache over how to return the fishermen, who are reported to have said they wish to return home, Takesada added.

— With assistance by Emi Nobuhiro

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