Last December, officials found the heads of two people and the partially skeletonized bodies of five people aboard a wooden “ghost ship” that landed on the Japanese island of Sado.
The Japanese coast guard said the bodies of more than 50 North Koreans have washed up on the beaches in the past two years.
Based on satellite data, the researchers say China sent a previously invisible armada of industrial boats to illegally fish in North Korean waters, violently dislodging small vessels and plummeting squid stocks.
After being muscled out of their home turf, desperate North Korean fishermen must now risk their lives further out to sea on unsafe boats, battered by rough seas and not built to withstand perilous voyages.
Kim Jong-un’s regime has reportedly put more pressure on them to increase catches amid food shortages in the secret country.
Over the past seven years, at least 50 survivors have been rescued, but they have refused to answer most questions in interviews with Japanese police and demanded to be returned to North Korea.
The “dark fleets” of Chinese ships do not publicly broadcast their location or appear on public surveillance systems, the Guardian reported.
Initially, the cause of the ghost boats in the fishing grounds of the Sea of Japan, known in Korea as the East Sea, was a mystery.
It was believed that climate change had forced North Koreans to move away from their coasts to catch squid, leaving them stranded at sea and dying of hunger, hypothermia or dehydration.
Squid stocks have declined by more than 70%.
Many boats that run aground are left with no one on board, leading Japan to believe that they were carrying spies or even people who were traveling there to deliberately spread a contagious disease.
In a report published in the journal Science Advances, GFW said more than 900 Chinese vessels fished illegally in the region in 2017 and 700 in 2018 – roughly a third of China’s entire deep-sea fishing fleet.
They are estimated to have caught over 160,000 metric tonnes of squid, valued at over £ 346million.
GFW, a nonprofit group that advocates for a transparent fishing industry, said China has likely violated UN sanctions that ban foreign fishing in North Korea’s territorial waters.
He said about 3,000 North Korean ships were forced to illegally capture squid in Russian waters in 2018.
Some broke down or ran out of fuel and were adrift before landing on the Japanese coast.
So many fishermen have disappeared at sea that some port towns are called “widow’s villages”.
Jungsam Lee, of the Korean Maritime Institute, told the Guardian: “Competition from Chinese industrial trawlers will likely displace North Korean fishermen, pushing them into nearby Russian waters.
“The North Koreans’ smaller wooden boats are ill-equipped for this long-distance journey. ”
Jaeyoon Park, a data scientist with Global Fishing Watch, told NBC News: “This is the largest known case of illegal fishing by a single industrial fleet operating in the waters of another country. ”
A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry told the TV station that “China has consistently and conscientiously implemented Security Council resolutions relating to North Korea,” and “systematically punished” illegal fishing.
He did not admit or deny sending his boats to North Korean waters.