SEOUL • Fishing boats carrying decomposed corpses have washed ashore in Japan in recent weeks, leading to speculation that they are rickety North Korean vessels which strayed too far from port under the impoverished nation's push to boost its catch.
There has been no mention from secretive North Korea of any missing boats, but its leader, Mr Kim Jong Un, has put a high priority on fishing as a way of earning foreign currency and providing a food source that is not reliant on harvests.
The Japanese coastguard and police reported 12 incidents of wrecked wooden boats, including some that were in pieces, arriving on the country's shores and waters since October. The Japanese authorities declined to comment, but a handwritten sign identified one boat as belonging to unit 325 of the North Korean army, according to footage from Japan's NHK Television. Tattered cloth that appeared to come from a North Korean flag was found aboard the vessel, the video showed.
Defectors and experts say fishing boats under the command of the Korean People's Army, under pressure to catch more fish, may have drifted off course and they were ill-equipped for rough seas.
TV images showed some boats were relatively large, but the coast guard said they did not have GPS navigation systems. Although Japan's Meteorological Agency said there was no unusually bad weather in the Sea of Japan last month, the waters are rougher at this time of the year.
October through February is also prime season for squid, sandfish and king crab off the east coast of the Korean peninsula, and it is not unusual that there would be high numbers of boats at sea, said Professor Kim Do Hoon, a professor of fisheries science at Pukyong National University in Busan.
"Kim Jong Un has been promoting the fisheries, which could explain why there are more fishing boats going out," he said. "But North Korean boats, with bad engines, perform really poorly. They risk their lives to go far to catch more. Sometimes, they drift and fishermen starve to death."
Over the years, North Korean boats have washed ashore in Japan as well as on the deserted beaches of the Russian Far East. Fishing is a vital industry in the impoverished North, and its 1.2 million-strong army is heavily engaged in food production, including fishing.
"Some of the boats belong to Korean People's Army fishery stations, possibly operating to catch sailfin sandfish," said Mr An Chan Il, who served in the North's army before defecting to South Korea.
North Korea's young leader recently visited a fishing stationand called for the facility to be upgraded, the North's official KCNA news agency said.
Mr Lee So Yeon, a North Korean army defector, said fish products are a key export for the North's army, which hires civilian fishermen to make money. "North Korean army units and security agencies run many businesses to earn foreign currency- from mining gold to catching fish on the west and east coasts," he said.
Professor Lee Jong Won, a professor of international relations at Japan's Waseda University, said: "The North is introducing an incentive system for producers. Fish is one of the main export products to China, which can be a way to get foreign currency. There is a possibility this incentive system led people to take more risks."