In most cases these ships are abandoned at sea by their crew, but in some cases after an engine failure they are carried to the costs of Japan by winds and currents and end up there, often with dead or emaciated fishermen aboard.
It is often claimed or suspected that the dramatic increase in the number of ‘ghost ships’ might be the result of changes in official government policy.
The government officials who allegedly run the fishing industry, it is claimed, order them to go further to the sea to get more fish to fill the treasuries of the North Korea’s alleged “mafia state.”
So, the poor fishermen are starving and dying just to pay for some luxury of the selected few. Therefore, it’s the cruel and repressive Stalinist state which has to take all the blame for what’s going on.
As usual, however, the actual picture is much more complicated and nuanced. The responsibility of the North Korean state is real, but perhaps marginal.
Paradoxically enough, the significant increase in the number of tragic incidents is to, a large extent, driven by the marketization and privatization of the fishing industry – exactly the same developments which make it so much more successful from a pure economic point of view and, in general, make North Korea a less repressive society.
In other words, it is the proverbial “invisible hand of the market” rather than the highly visible hand of the Stalinist state which drives North Koreans to the open sea on small boats which are clearly not designed for such lengthy trips.
What are the reasons for this change? Since we, humans, love bulleted lists, let’s try to simplify the picture and give four major reasons behind the dramatic upsurge in “ghost ships.”
Reason 1: More fishermen
The first reason is the significant increase in the number of the North Korean fishing boats. This author just a few months ago saw how many small fishing boats were leaving the port of Wonsan, and it was an impressive picture indeed. Hundreds of boats could be seen far away at sea. Perhaps, in my lifetime, I have never seen a sea space dotted with such a large number of small boats and ships.
One does not necessarily need to be on the ground to see what’s going on with the North Korean fishing boats. One can easily check Google Maps and other satellite services to see how crowded with wooden ships the North Korean ports have become in recent years.
There is little doubt that the number of the fishing ships is growing fast, and this is driven by a few developments.
First of all, it seems that the North Korea government agencies, state-owned enterprises, and units of the North Korean military are much more willing to make deals with individual entrepreneurs who are going to buy boats, register these boats with the assorted agencies, and then start making regular payments of a significant flat tax.
The significant increase in the number of tragic incidents is to, a large extent, driven by the marketization and privatization of the fishing industry
On the other hand, the palpable economic improvement under Kim Jong Un means that there is a growing number of North Koreans who can afford to pay $1000 or a bit more on a boat, in order to try their luck somewhere in the sea. People are more prosperous (or should we say ‘less destitute’?) in North Korea nowadays, and it is only natural that they are willing to invest their newly-acquired modest wealth into what appears to be a profitable business.
Indeed, fishing, in spite of being hard and very dangerous, is also profitable for the people involved. If you live in a small town on North Korea’s east coast, and come from a family with little official connections, around 70% of reasonably well paid jobs are either in fishing or somehow related to fishing. Unless you are an official or an official’s child, and the only thing you have is your hands and perhaps a bit of money, you are highly likely to get involved with fishing.
However, the increasing number of ships chasing the same amount of fish (well, as we will see soon, not exactly the same, but rather diminishing amount) means higher competition.
I recently heard a joke from North Korean fishermen who say: “nowadays, there are more fishermen in the sea than fish.” This joke is not completely unfounded. So, in attempts to get more fish, the North Korean fishermen tend to go even further from their native shores, to the alluring shallow waters of the Yamato tide.
Reason 2: Fewer fish
Secondly, the fish resources are not the same. I have interviewed dozens of North Korean fishermen, and pretty much all of them agree that since the mid-1990s, there has been a steady depletion of the fish stocks available at the coastal waters of the DPRK.
The major reason is clear: systematic overfishing. One of my contacts noticed that even in the late 1990s, one could catch two or three times more crabs in the areas which were under the control of the navy and hence were protected from the ordinary fishermen. This gap says a lot, and since then, the scale of overfishing has clearly exceeded.
The recent appearance of the Chinese boats with highly efficient dragnets has made the situation even worse, since a single boat can now harvest significantly more fish and squid than before.
Predictably, the North Koreans blame the Chinese for the overfishing, and, equally predictably, these claims are often repeated by the Western media.
While not completely unfounded, these claims are seemingly exaggerated. While Chinese fishermen, some of whom receive rights to work in the North Korean coastal waters, contribute towards fish stocks depletion, their role seems to be secondary. The major problems are created, it seems, by the North Koreans themselves.
Since the mid-1990s, there had been a steady depletion of the fish stocks available at the coastal waters of the DPRK
There might be some environmental reasons for the change as well, since many locals from the eastern coast of North Korea say that the currents in the area have changed their normal routes over the last ten years.
This, in turn, might be related to global warming – but this is not necessarily the case since, historically, currents have changed their routes many times before. At any rate, the depletion of fishing stocks is another factor which is driving North Koreans far away.
Reason 3: International Sanctions and price falls
The third factor is international sanctions, which began to play a major role in late 2017. The mechanics is quite simple. Since the 1990s, the Korean coastal fishing has been almost exclusively an export-oriented industry.
Pretty much everything which was caught by the North Korean fishermen, sooner or later, ended up in the Chinese shops or restaurants – or, in some cases, falsely relabeled as “Chinese produce” in the shops and restaurants of Japan and South Korea.
The Chinese are still buying most of the North Korean catch, but now they are doing it illegally: sales of North Korean seafood are banned by the UN Security Council and hence constitute a pure and simple case of smuggling.
Naturally enough, when Chinese dealers buy smuggled seafood, they want to get significant discounts for the risks they are taking. This means that the price of squid and fish sold to the Chinese has fallen.
At the same time, the rate of fixed tax North Korean fishermen must pay for their registration has not changed at all – and this rate, like pretty much all similar payments in North Korea, is usually calculated and often paid in U.S. dollars, Chinese yuan, or other currency.
Therefore, to earn enough to pay tax and still make money, the North Korean fishermen have no choice but to take even greater risks and go further and further away from their coast.
Reason 4: shortage of capital, unreliable ships
The fourth problem is, of course, the low technical level of the ships – an unavoidable result of the shortage of capital.
There are some North Koreans who can afford to spend, say, $1200 to purchase or order a wooden boat for coastal fishing. But building boats which would be highly reliable in the case of longer journeys is going to cost significantly more – and this is not an amount the North Korea private economy, still weak and short on capital, is going to generate.
One has to admit that there have been some improvements with technology, and in some cases, these improvements were even encouraged or at least tolerated by the North Korean authorities.
Compared to what it used to be in the early 2000s, engines are better now and sometimes more powerful – with 35 horse power engines increasing in popularity. In some cases, a boat owner even accept additional expenses and install can have two engines, so, if something happens to one, the remaining engine will probably ensure a reasonably safe trip back home.
Last, but not least, official control over navigation equipment has been relaxed in recent years. In the days of the late Kim Jong Il, the North Korean fishermen were not allowed to use GPSs and were even banned from taking a radio receiver with free tuning on boats (the latter ban was frequently ignored and seldom enforced).
Nowadays, most of the ships have GPS systems and it is not unusual to have not only a receiver but also a small radio transmitter – weak, but still good enough to stay in touch with other North Korean fishing boats nearby.
Nonetheless, the shortage of capital remains a problem and it is not clear how this problem can be fixed in the immediate future.
North Korean fishermen have no choice but to take even greater risks and go further and further away from their coast
What can be done?
The sad part of the “ghost ship” story is that the phenomenon is brought about by forces which are actually making North Korean a better place – at least, from the point of view of the majority of readers.
The drive to privatize the economy is laudable. Even if some people are going to voice their disagreement with such outrageously pro-capitalist statement, they should keep in mind that males from the impoverished North Korean coastal villages, had they had no opportunity to go fishing, would probably be relegated to much worse jobs, and would be probably face a pretty real threat of starvation.
However, it is the increasingly deregulated and fast growing industry that makes depletion of seafood resources almost unavoidable.
To give them their due, the North Korean authorities are trying to do something about the problem. There are some restrictions in the amount and size of fish one can catch. Small fish must be released back into the sea.
However, these restrictions are universally ignored since, in the face of tough competition (very capitalist in nature), the fishermen are not going to willingly jettison a significant part of their catch, and hence future earnings.
On the other hand, the rampant corruption of the North Korean bureaucracy means that, for a small bribe, inspectors are more than willing to look the other side and ignore all regulations.
The UN-imposed sanctions also play a role. The geopolitical logic behind sanctions is impeccable and understandable: the seafood, indeed, is one of the major sources of hard currency for the Kim Family Regime, and every squid caught by a North Korean fisherman makes a tiny contribution towards North Korean nuclear and ICBM development programs.
Since this program constitutes a ‘clear and present danger’ to the U.S. (as well as Japanese, South Korean and even, potentially, Chinese) cities, it is only logical that potential targets do what they can to slow it down.
The UN-imposed sanctions also play a role
Does all these mean that the problem is unfixable and the number of North Korean ghost ships will keep growing? For a while, this might indeed be the case. But it seems that in the long run, there is only one long term solution: economic growth.
If North Korean fishermen have more money, they will be able to build larger ships, or perhaps find alternatives to fishing as a way to stay alive and take care of their families.
If the country has enough money, North Korean officials will be under less temptation to ignore regulations and take bribes. Perhaps, then, existing laws about protection of fishing stocks can be enforced, and maybe, more laws can be introduced.
If sanctions are lifted or relaxed, it will help, too. However, economic growth is not something which happens overnight. It tends to be a long, winding, and time consuming process everywhere, and North Korea is unlikely to be an exception to this rule.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
This is the second part of a two-part series by Andrei Lankov on North Korean ‘ghost ships’. Read part one here.
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.