Ghost ships from North Korea carry few clues other than corpses

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Sizuo Kakutani sees no great mystery in the things that wash ashore in Monzen, his quiet fishing village on the Sea of Japan — the fishing boats ravaged by fierce winter storms, the Chinese garbage carried to land by the strong winds …. The ghost ships, however, are harder to explain. On an early morning in November, the 71-year-old retired fisherman received a call from his colleagues at the town’s civilian coast guard. A black mass bobbling in the water — most likely a boat — had been spotted hooked to a distant buoy.

14 boats carrying more than decomposing corpses have turned up in Japan in the past few months. / Kyodo

14 boats carrying more than decomposing corpses have turned up in Japan in the past few months. / Kyodo

“When I saw the boat, I immediately knew that it was from North Korea,” Kakutani said. He had seen similar vessels before — no more than 30 feet long, made of wood, its flat-bottomed hull covered in black tar. …

In small towns along Japan’s sleepy west coast, dozens of North Korean boats drift ashore each year — and while most arrive empty or reduced to kindling, some float eerily out of the haze with a crew of bodies, adding to the mystery of a country that cloaks itself in secrecy.

A flotilla of the ghost boats — at least 14 of them, carrying more than 30 decomposing corpses — has washed ashore since late last year along a 1,000-mile stretch of the west coast, leaving Japanese investigators puzzled. Who were these people? What happened to them?

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