29 Dec 2019

'Ghost boat' with human remains washes up on Japan's shores

12:12 pm on 29 December 2019

Five corpses and two human heads have been discovered inside a shipwreck on the coast of Japan.

Japanese coast guard officers inspect a battered wooden boat where eight bodies were found inside at a beach in Oga, in Japan's Akita prefecture.

Japanese coastguard officers inspect a battered wooden boat where eight bodies were found inside at a beach in Oga, in Japan's Akita prefecture, in November 2017. Photo: AFP

The boat washed ashore on Japan's Sado Island, northwest from the mainland, on Friday and authorities gained access yesterday.

The heavily damaged vessel had Korean lettering painted on its side.

Police could not confirm whether the two heads belonged to the corpses but Japanese media said the remains were "partially skeletonised".

This could indicate the victims had been at sea for a long time.

"Ghost boats" believed to hail from North Korea are a fairly common discovery on Japanese shores.

They are generally empty or contain only human remains. During winter, exposure and starvation are the most likely explanations for crew members' deaths.

In previous incidents there has been speculation that crew found on the "ghost boats" are defectors or spies from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's repressive regime.


This picture taken on November 21, 2015 shows a wooden boat being salvaged at a port in Wajima in Ishikawa prefecture, central Japan. Mystery surrounds a fleet of ghost boats with headless skeletons or rotting corpses on board that are washing up on Japan's shores.

In this file shot from November 2015, a wooden boat is salvaged at a port in Wajima in Ishikawa prefecture, central Japan. It was part of a fleet of ghost boats with headless skeletons or rotting corpses on board that washed up on Japan's shores. Photo: AFP

But it is also thought that poverty is forcing North Koreans to fish further from home.

In 2017 a fishing crew was discovered alive on board a drifting vessel and asked to be sent back to North Korea.

Another ship picked up by the Japanese coast guard was found to have 10 men on board.

The boats are often rickety and very simple vessels with no modern engines or navigation instruments on board.

If they ventured too far out to sea or got blown off course, they would lose their bearings or find it hard to beat the currents even if they knew which way to go.

Tensions may hinder inquiry

Ongoing tensions between Japan and North Korea could make a full investigation into the latest shipwreck difficult.

On Friday, Japanese national broadcaster NHK accidentally reported a North Korea missile launch before correcting the error. They apologised and said the newsflash was intended to be a training exercise.

In November, North Korea threatened Japan with a "real ballistic missile" and called Prime Minister Shinzo Abe an "imbecile" and "political dwarf", accusing him of mislabelling its latest weapons test.

- BBC

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs