The deadly secret of China's invisible armada

Desperate North Korean fishermen are washing ashore as skeletons because of the world's largest illegal fleet.

Chinese fishing vessels moored off of Ulleung Island, South Korea. (Fábio Nascimento)

Chinese fishing vessels moored off of Ulleung Island, South Korea. (Fábio Nascimento)

By Ian Urbina
July 22, 2020

OFF THE COAST OF SOUTH KOREA — The battered wooden “ghost boats” drift through the Sea of Japan for months, their only cargo the corpses of starved North Korean fishermen whose bodies have been reduced to skeletons. Last year more than 150 of these macabre vessels washed ashore in Japan, and there have been more than 500 in the past five years.

For years the grisly phenomenon mystified Japanese police, whose best guess was that climate change pushed the squid population farther from North Korea, driving the country’s desperate fishermen dangerous distances from shore, where they become stranded and die from exposure. 

But an NBC News investigation, based on new satellite data, has revealed what marine researchers now say is a more likely explanation: China is sending a previously invisible armada of industrial boats to illegally fish in North Korean waters, violently displacing smaller North Korean boats and spearheading a decline in once-abundant squid stocks of more than 70 percent. 

The Chinese vessels — nearly 800 in 2019 — appear to be in violation of  U.N. sanctions that forbid foreign fishing in North Korean waters. The sanctions, imposed in 2017 in response to the country’s nuclear tests, were intended to punish North Korea by not allowing it to sell fishing rights in its waters in exchange for valuable foreign currency. 

“This is the largest known case of illegal fishing perpetrated by a single industrial fleet operating in another nation’s waters,” said Jaeyoon Park, a data scientist from Global Fishing Watch, a global ocean conservation nonprofit group co-founded by Google, based in Washington. The group specializes in artificial intelligence and satellites that, along with an international team of academic researchers, discovered the Chinese fleet. 

Presence of satellite-detected vessels fishing in North Korean waters in 2018

A satellite-detected vessel

Evidence of sanctions violations

China is a member of the U.N. Security Council, which unanimously signed the recent North Korean sanctions. But the flotilla violating this ban makes up nearly a third of the entire Chinese distant-water fishing fleet, according to Global Fishing Watch.

When asked to comment on the investigation, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “China has consistently and conscientiously enforced the resolutions of the Security Council relating to North Korea.” The ministry added that China has “consistently punished” illegal fishing, but it neither admitted nor denied sending its boats into North Korean waters.

In March, two countries anonymously complained in a report to the United Nations about China’s violations of these sanctions and they provided evidence of the crimes, including satellite imagery of the Chinese ships fishing in North Korean waters and testimony from a Chinese fishing crew who said it had alerted their government of its plans to fish in North Korean waters. 

The fishing grounds in the Sea of Japan, known in the Koreas as the East Sea, are between the Koreas, Japan and Russia, and include some of the world’s most contested and poorly monitored waters. Up to now, the huge presence of Chinese boats in this area was largely hidden, because their captains routinely turn off their transponders, making them invisible to on-land authorities. In most jurisdictions, this act is illegal.

Global Fishing Watch and its partner researchers were able to document these vessels, however, using several types of satellite technology, including one that spots bright lights at night. Many squid boats use extremely strong lights to draw their prey nearer to the ocean surface, making the squid easier to catch. The Chinese also use what are called “pair trawlers,” which consist of two side-by-side boats with a net strung between them that combs the seas, which are easier to track by satellite since the two travel together.

In addition, some of the ships in this study kept their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders turned on as they entered North Korean waters.

SHUNFA988 and SHUNFA998 are among many side-by-side "pair trawlers" confirmed by Global Fishing Watch. By analyzing each ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal and overlaying the daytime optical images, it was possible to detect that these two vessels were engaged in fishing activities in North Korean waters between May and June 2018.

This map shows the routes for these two vessels from the end of April to July, 2018, which is when the annual fishing ban was in place in Chinese waters. Satellite identifiers captured a total of 120 signals in North Korean waters from those pair trawlers.

Planet Labs, Inc.

Planet Labs, Inc.

‘Widows villages’ in North Korea

So many North Koreans have disappeared at sea in recent years that some North Korean port towns, including Chongjin along the country’s eastern shore, are now called “widows’ villages.” Over the past two years, more than 50 bodies of North Koreans washed onto Japanese beaches, according to the Japanese Coast Guard. 

The grim uptick of these ghost boats washing ashore has stoked paranoia and inflamed a tense history between Japan and North Korea, leading some in Japan to speculate that the ghost boats are carrying spies, thieves or possibly even weaponized carriers of contagious disease. 

“If a Korean ship lost its way, it would be destroyed by the time it lands on our beaches,” said Kazuhiro Araki, CEO of the Abduction Research Organization, a fringe group that studies the history of hundreds of Japanese citizens who were allegedly kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and ՚80s. “But some ships arrived to our coast intact, and with no men on board, and it’s possible those people are spies who made it to land.”

A wooden boat, which drifted ashore with eight partially skeletal bodies and was found by the Japan Coast Guard, in Oga, Akita Prefecture, Japan, on Nov. 27, 2017.

A wooden boat, which drifted ashore with eight partially skeletal bodies, was found by the Japanese Coast Guard in Oga, Akita Prefecture, Japan, on Nov. 27, 2017. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

A wooden boat, which drifted ashore with eight partially skeletal bodies, was found by the Japanese Coast Guard in Oga, Akita Prefecture, Japan, on Nov. 27, 2017. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

A fish boat of unknown nationality with squids drying on the roof off the northwest of Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan on Oct. 7, 2019.

A fishing boat of unknown nationality with squid drying on the roof off the Noto Peninsula of Japan on Oct. 7, 2019. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP file)

A fishing boat of unknown nationality with squid drying on the roof off the Noto Peninsula of Japan on Oct. 7, 2019. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP file)

Police officers investigate a wooden boat marked with Hangul characters on Sado island, Japan, on  Nov. 28, 2012.

Japanese police officers investigate a wooden boat marked with Korean lettering on Sado island, Japan, on Nov. 28, 2012. Five bodies were found on the boat, which washed up on rocks by a beach on the island. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

Japanese police officers investigate a wooden boat marked with Korean lettering on Sado island, Japan, on Nov. 28, 2012. Five bodies were found on the boat, which washed up on rocks by a beach on the island. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

A wooden boat is seen in front of a breakwater in Yurihonjo, Akita prefecture, Japan on Nov. 24, 2017.

A wooden boat in front of a breakwater in Yurihonjo, Japan on Nov. 24, 2017. It washed ashore carrying eight men claiming to be from North Korea. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

A wooden boat in front of a breakwater in Yurihonjo, Japan on Nov. 24, 2017. It washed ashore carrying eight men claiming to be from North Korea. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

A wooden boat, which drifted ashore with eight partially skeletal bodies and was found by the Japan Coast Guard, in Oga, Akita Prefecture, Japan, on Nov. 27, 2017.

A wooden boat, which drifted ashore with eight partially skeletal bodies, was found by the Japanese Coast Guard in Oga, Akita Prefecture, Japan, on Nov. 27, 2017. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

A wooden boat, which drifted ashore with eight partially skeletal bodies, was found by the Japanese Coast Guard in Oga, Akita Prefecture, Japan, on Nov. 27, 2017. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

A fish boat of unknown nationality with squids drying on the roof off the northwest of Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan on Oct. 7, 2019.

A fishing boat of unknown nationality with squid drying on the roof off the Noto Peninsula of Japan on Oct. 7, 2019. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP file)

A fishing boat of unknown nationality with squid drying on the roof off the Noto Peninsula of Japan on Oct. 7, 2019. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP file)

Police officers investigate a wooden boat marked with Hangul characters on Sado island, Japan, on  Nov. 28, 2012.

Japanese police officers investigate a wooden boat marked with Korean lettering on Sado island, Japan, on Nov. 28, 2012. Five bodies were found on the boat, which washed up on rocks by a beach on the island. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

Japanese police officers investigate a wooden boat marked with Korean lettering on Sado island, Japan, on Nov. 28, 2012. Five bodies were found on the boat, which washed up on rocks by a beach on the island. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

A wooden boat is seen in front of a breakwater in Yurihonjo, Akita prefecture, Japan on Nov. 24, 2017.

A wooden boat in front of a breakwater in Yurihonjo, Japan on Nov. 24, 2017. It washed ashore carrying eight men claiming to be from North Korea. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

A wooden boat in front of a breakwater in Yurihonjo, Japan on Nov. 24, 2017. It washed ashore carrying eight men claiming to be from North Korea. (Kyodo via Reuters file)

This is not a mainstream conclusion, however, and the more probable explanation is that these Koreans are just poorly equipped fishermen taking desperate risks and venturing too far from shore, according to Jung-Sam Lee, a scholar at the Korea Maritime Institute and one of the authors of the new research for Global Fishing Watch. After being battered by typhoons or stranded by engine failure, the fishermen are being carried by the Tsushima current that runs north-eastward up the west coast of Japan, he said.

Encrusted with shells and algae, these flat-bottom wooden boats are 15 to 20 feet long and typically carry five to 10 men. They have no toilets or beds, just small jugs of clean water, fishing nets and tackle, according to Japanese Coast Guard investigation reports. They fly tattered North Korean flags and their hulls are often emblazoned with painted numbers or markings in Korean script including, "State Security Department" and "Korean People's Army." 

All of the bodies found on board these ghost boats appear to be male, though some were so badly decomposed that Japanese investigators struggled to say for sure. Political tensions between the countries and a lack of transparency in the “hermit state” of North Korea make it difficult to get an official explanation of the phenomenon.

Fishing boats as warships

In 2004, China signed a multimillion-dollar fishing license agreement with North Korea that led to a drastic increase in the number of Chinese boats in North Korean waters. But international sanctions imposed in 2017 in response to North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests were meant to squeeze key sources of North Korean revenue.

A long-time benefactor of North Korea, China signed the sanctions after being pressured by the United States, and in August 2017 China’s minister of commerce publicly reiterated his government’s commitment to enforce these new rules.

Seafood remains North Korea's sixth-biggest export, and in recent speeches the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, has pushed the state-owned seafood industry to increase its haul. 

"Fish are like bullets and artillery shells," an editorial in the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, said in 2017. "Fishing boats are like warships, protecting the people and the motherland."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a fish processing facility in North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a fish processing facility in North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on Nov. 18, 2019. (KCNA via Reuters file)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a fish processing facility in North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on Nov. 18, 2019. (KCNA via Reuters file)

In the wake of the U.N. sanctions and as foreign currency reserves have dwindled, the North Korean government has tried to bolster its fishing industry by turning soldiers into fishermen, dispatching these poorly trained seafarers onto notoriously turbulent waters. The sanctions have also intensified North Korea’s gasoline shortage. Japanese investigators say that some of the Korean fishing boats washing onto Japanese beaches suffered from engine failure or simply ran out of fuel.

Since 2013, at least 50 survivors have been rescued from these dilapidated boats, but in interviews with Japanese police, the men rarely say more than that they were stranded at sea and that they want to be returned home to North Korea. Autopsies on the bodies found on these boats usually indicate that the men died of starvation, hypothermia or dehydration. 

In 2013, North Korean fishermen were limited by the capacity of their 12-horsepower engines and typically traveled only several dozen miles from land, said a former North Korean fisherman, who defected to South Korea in 2016 and now lives in Seoul. 

“Government pressure is greater now, and there are 38-horsepower engines,” said the defector, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions for his family. “People are more desperate and they can go farther from shore.”

But marine researchers say that pressure from the North Korean government is not the only factor. 

“Competition from the industrial Chinese trawlers is likely displacing the North Korean fishers, pushing them into neighboring Russian waters,” said Jung-Sam Lee, the scholar whose institute also found that hundreds of North Korean vessels fished illegally in Russian waters in 2018.

In 2017, the Japanese Coast Guard also reported spotting more than 2,000 North Korean fishing boats fishing illegally in their waters. In more than 300 instances, the Japanese Coast Guard used water cannons to force these boats to leave the area.

A Japanese Coast Guard patrol vessel approaches a North Korean fishing boat to warn them to leave the waters near Yamatotai, Japan in late May 2019.

A Japanese Coast Guard patrol vessel approaches a North Korean fishing boat to warn them to leave the waters near Yamatotai, Japan in late May 2019. (Japan Coast Guard via AP file)

A Japanese Coast Guard patrol vessel approaches a North Korean fishing boat to warn them to leave the waters near Yamatotai, Japan in late May 2019. (Japan Coast Guard via AP file)

Ranked worst for illegal fishing

Around the globe, many kinds of fish and sea creatures are disappearing at an unsustainable rate due to climate change, overfishing and illegal fishing by industrial fleets. As these fishing stocks shrink, competition grows and offshore clashes between fishing nations become more common. Seafood-loving countries like Japan and South Korea are being edged out by growing fleets from Taiwan, Vietnam and, most of all, China. 

China accounted for about 15 percent of total global fishing captures in 2018, more than the total captures of the second- and third-ranked countries combined, according to the U.N. Fisheries agency. Many of the fishing stocks closest to China’s shores have collapsed from overfishing and industrialization, which is why the Chinese government heavily subsidizes its fishermen, who sail the world in search of new grounds. 

Fishing fleets from China accounted for 50 to 70 percent of the squid caught on the high seas in recent years, according to an estimate by the Chinese ­government. Often these boats are fishing illegally in other countries’ national waters, according to an unpublished analysis by C4ADS, a marine research firm. According to another index published last year by fishing and global crime experts, China has the world’s worst score when it comes to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The Sea of Japan includes disputed patches of water where the surrounding countries — Russia, Japan and the two Koreas — do not recognize one another’s sea borders. The incursion of the Chinese in this region has only intensified local tensions. 

Chinese fishing boats are famously aggressive, often armed and known for ramming competitors or foreign patrol vessels, according to U.S. Navy officials and maritime security specialists. Chinese media often depict the country’s maritime clashes with other nearby Asian nations as an extension of ancient China's Three Kingdoms, which fought a fierce three-way battle for supremacy.

Tensions between Seoul and Beijing increased in 2016 after a Chinese vessel, illegally fishing in South Korean waters, sank a South Korean Coast Guard cutter. The cutter was in South Korean waters and was trying to stop a Chinese fishing ship that allegedly had been caught fishing illegally when it was rear-ended by another Chinese ship. 

Similarly, while reporting at sea for this investigation in South Korean waters, reporters for this article filmed 10 of these illegal Chinese fishing ships crossing into North Korean waters. However, the reporting team was forced to divert its course to avoid a collision after one of the Chinese fishing captains suddenly swerved toward the team’s boat, coming within 10 meters (nearly 11 yards), apparently in an attempt to ward off the boat. 

Spotted at night and roughly 100 miles from shore, the Chinese squid ships would not respond to radio calls and were traveling with their transponders off.

The collapse of the squid

A yearly migratory species, the so-called Pacific Flying Squid spawn in waters near the southeastern port city of Busan or off South Korea's southernmost island of Jeju. They swim north in the spring before returning south to their birthplace between July and September. 

In 2017 and 2018, the illegal Chinese boats, which are typically about 10 times larger than North Korean boats, caught as much of the squid as Japan and South Korea combined — an estimated 160,000 tons, worth more than $440 million annually, according to research published in the journal Science Advances

Marine researchers fear a full collapse of this squid colony, which has declined in South Korean and Japanese waters by more than 70 percent, since 2003. 

The Chinese fleet is a primary culprit of this precipitous drop because, in targeting North Korea waters, these industrial boats are catching the squid before they grow big enough to procreate, said Park, the scientist from Global Fishing Watch. 

Since Chinese authorities do not make their fishing licenses public, Global Fishing Watch said that there is no way to verify that all of the ships entering North Korean waters were authorized by the Chinese government. However the organization corroborated that the vessels were of Chinese origin through various other sources of information. 

Among these corroborating sources were transponder and other types of radio transmissions; records from South Korean Coast Guard officials who routinely board and inspect fishing ships on their way into North Korean waters; data showing that the ships had departed from Chinese ports or waters that are strictly limited to Chinese vessels; records indicating the use of distinctly Chinese-type gear or ship design; and satellite information showing that the ships previously fished in Chinese waters that are closely policed and forbidden to foreign ships. 

All of the roughly two dozen fishing ships that the NBC News reporting team witnessed heading into North Korean waters were flying Chinese flags. 

“When they come, they take over,” said Kim Byeong Su, the governor of Ulleung island, in the East Sea about 75 miles east of the Korean Peninsula. A tiny spit of land belonging to South Korea, Ulleung is the closest port to the North Korean fishing grounds. 

Chinese fleets anchored in Sadong port, Ulleung-do, South Korea due to bad weather in North Korean waters on Dec. 6, 2016.

Chinese fleets anchored in Sadong port, Ulleung-do, South Korea due to bad weather in North Korean waters on Dec. 6, 2016. There are two types of boats shown: shorter trawlers and longer, higher lighting boats. (Ulleung-gun County Office)

Chinese fleets anchored in Sadong port, Ulleung-do, South Korea due to bad weather in North Korean waters on Dec. 6, 2016. There are two types of boats shown: shorter trawlers and longer, higher lighting boats. (Ulleung-gun County Office)

Kim said that the Chinese squid boats have decimated the island’s two primary sources of income, tourism and fishing. In the Jeodong market near the pier, rows of the squid are draped across lines like folded laundry as they sun-dry into fish jerky. Squid sellers estimated that the per-pound cost of squid is roughly three times what it was less than five years ago. 

Most of the island’s men older than 40 are squid fishermen, but a third of them are now unemployed because of the decline in stock, the mayor said. That a creature so central to the local culture could disappear has shaken this community, whose identity has been defined by squid fishing for centuries. 

Historically, most of Ulleung’s restaurants served fried, dried or raw squid as a free appetizer, but these dishes are now absent from many menus. 

Local animosity toward the Chinese fleet is made only worse, the mayor said, when bad weather strikes a few times a year and an armada of more than 200 Chinese squid boats arrive simultaneously to Ulleung’s port to ride out the storm. The governor said he is powerless to tell them to leave. 

They dump oil, throw litter, run loud, smoky generators all night and drag their anchors when leaving, destroying the island’s fresh water pipes, he said. 

“The outside world," Kim said, "needs to know what’s happening here."

Ian Urbina, a former investigative reporter for The New York Times, is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington that focuses on reporting about environmental and human rights crimes at sea.

Graphics and development by Jiachuan Wu; Photo editing by Elise Wrabetz; Video by Marshall Crook