Fishing is a dangerous occupation anywhere in the world; for example, the work-related death-rate for Australian fisherman in one study was 143 per 100,000 people each year, which was 18x the Australian national average work-related fatality rate. During the winter, North Korean fishing boats go out searching for king crab, sandfish, and squid. Some of the fishing boats appear to be operated by soldiers or rented by the army to civilians. Fish is one of the only exports from North Korea (typically to China). Wreckage from North Korean boats often washes ashore in northern Japan during winter due to seasonal winds, weak motors, and harsh currents.
The ghost-ships washing up with no living crew-members typically are old, lack modern engines, and have no GPS. North Korea's lack of food plays a major role in crew death; with little food on board, fishermen die of exposure and starvation.
An analyst quoted by the South China Morning Post said that it is not likely vessels are being used to infiltrate North Korean agents into Japan, as it would be easier for them to just use phony passports and put the agents aboard a flight to Japan.
Rather a portion of the boats are from North Korean defectors. Defectors aside, fishing boats with living crew have also washed up on Japanese shores. In November 2017, eight North Korean men and a broken boat were found on Japan’s northern coast; the men stated they had washed ashore after their boat broke down.
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