This fall, a dozen rickety wooden ships have emerged from the sea off the coast of Japan. They’re being called ghost ships, a mysterious fleet helmed by the decomposing bodies of the crew — some of them headless, others reduced to mere bones.
These ghost ships bore few signs of their origin, and authorities in Japan haven’t confirmed where they came from or the identities of the remains, Reuters reported.
One boat found in November bore a hand-written sign indicating it belonged to a unit of the Korean Army; inside were 10 corpses. Tattered cloth, possibly the remains of the North Korean flag, was found on another boat. Yet another contained fishing equipment and nets, the Associated Press added.
Since October, 12 such wooden ghost ships have wrecked on Japan’s coast. All told, these boats carried the remains of 22 people. But the mystery isn’t just contained to this fall. This year, a total of 34 such vessels have washed ashore, 65 last year, and 80 in 2013.
According to the Telegraph and CNN, the corpses aboard were badly decomposed. Some were “partially skeletonized.” Oddly, two bodies had no heads, and another boat was littered with six skulls, Japan’s coast guard said.
Authorities believe the ghost ships had been adrift for a long time, and so far, they only have theories to explain where they came from. Even though evidence on some of the vessels indicates they hailed from North Korea, the government hasn’t reported any missing fleets.
Wherever they came from, the horrifying circumstances that led them to Japan’s shores are being attributed to weather, poor navigation, and the primitive nature of the boats.
“(The boats) are made of wood and are old and heavy,” theorized maritime expert Yoshihiko Yamada. “They can’t travel very fast and the engines are not powerful enough to turn the ships against the currents.”
The ghost ships are large but simple motorized wooden craft without GPS navigation systems. Though the weather hasn’t been particularly rough since October, the Sea of Japan is more treacherous than in other seasons because of oncoming cold, northwesterly winds. Mystery ships commonly wash up on Japan’s shores during the fall and winter.
The working assumption in Japan is that the ghost ships are fishing vessels that sailed too far from the shore of North Korea. Then their fuel ran out or engine broke down. Sadly, the crew likely perished from exposure or starvation, unprepared for an extended period at sea. They then drifted in the cold waters, carried by the currents to Japan.
The theory that the boats are fishing vessels, which are controlled by the Korean People’s Army, is a reasonable explanation. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has pushed the fishing industry to earn foreign currency and provide the country with a sustainable source of food. October through February is prime season for squid, sandfish, and king crab off the Korean peninsula.
“Kim Jong Un has been promoting the fisheries, which could explain why there are more fishing boats going out,” said fisheries science professor Kim Do-hoon. “But [these] boats perform really poorly, with bad engines, risking lives to go far to catch more. Sometimes they drift and fishermen starve to death.”
Another equally disheartening explanation is that the ghost ships are filled with the bodies of people desperate to escape the North Korean regime. Though defectors usually flee by land through China, those borders are now actively policed. Scholar Jun Okumura is certain the ghost ships carried defectors, and the sheer number of vessels washing ashore in Japan suggests “serious instability” in the country.
John Nilsson-Wright, a policy expert, agrees.
“What we do know is that for those people living outside of (North Korean capital) Pyongyang… life remains extraordinarily hard, and it may be an economic necessity as much as a desire for political freedom [that is] encouraging some people in the North to try and leave the country.”
[Image via DoublePHOTO studio/Shutterstock]